A Brief History of ESL Instruction: Theories, Methodologies, and Upheavals

Source: Joan Taber


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Since the 1940s, the definitive solution to successful ESL instruction has been discovered many times. Like bestsellers, pop stars, and ice-cream flavors, second-language theories and methodologies enjoy a few afternoons or years in the spotlight and then stumble into the dusk of old age. There is always another tried-and-true methodology from yet another expert theorist who may or may not have had first-hand experience learning a second language. Before the late nineteenth century, second-language instruction mirrored the so-called Classical Method of teaching Latin and Greek; lessons were based on mental-aerobics exercises—repetition drills and out-of-context vocabulary drills as well as lots of reading and translations of ancient texts. Brown notes that languages were “not being taught primarily to learn oral/aural communication, but to learn for the sake of being ‘scholarly’ or…for reading proficiency” (15). Theories of second-language acquisition didn’t start to pop up until the instructional objective became oral competence.

According to T. Rogers, the very concept of method involves “the notion of a systematic set of teaching practices based on a particular theory of language and language learning…” (paragraph 1). However, it is possible to develop a set of teaching practices and then go in search of a theory. It’s called having an agenda. But, for the sake of classification, let us include non-theory-based practices under the heading of methods.

From the turn of the nineteenth century until the late 1940s, the grammar-translation method ruled. In the few instances of attempted coups, it lost some ground, but academia always beckoned it back. Despite its antiquity, or because of it, the grammar-translation method is still alive and well in language classrooms throughout Europe, Asia, and even in the Americas. It is easy to teach; it requires no more than the ability to memorize lists of isolated vocabulary words; and it aims low in terms of oral communication and aural comprehension—no one teaching or learning a target language is required to speak, pronounce, or even understand the spoken language. Because the target language is taught in the students’ native language, it is possible for students to have studied it for years without having been required to participate in the most elementary conversation. Indeed, the only real challenge confronting students and teachers in the grammar-translation classroom is overcoming boredom.
A typical one-hour class might begin with ten minutes of synchronized verb declensions. This might be followed by the instructor’s explanation of a particular grammatical feature of the target language. The instructor might then assign students a series of fill-in-the-blank exercises or sentence constructions that demonstrate the grammar point. Other features of the grammar-translation class include translations of literary passages from the target language into the native language, identifying antonyms and synonyms, drilling vocabulary words, memorizing vocabulary lists, creating sentences with the new vocabulary words, and writing compositions in the target language. Except for the repetition drills, most of the above work is written.

One might wonder why this obviously antiquated method is still used. Aside from the aforementioned virtue of being easy for both teacher and student, some claim it is the most effective way to introduce literature in the target language. That is, in learning how to read in the target language, students are exposed to a variety of grammatical structures, thousands of vocabulary words in context, and they learn to translate across linguistic borders. It does not

Most ESL instructors have witnessed the results of the grammar-translation method in students who have studied English as a foreign language in their native countries. They are often able to read and write English—sometimes better than native speakers—but they have had no experience listening to or speaking the language. In fact, ESL teachers face the challenge of defossilizing incomprehensible deviations in students’ pronunciation and inflections. Furthermore, grammar-translation students are accustomed to doing fill-in-the-blank exercises, learning grammar rules before applying them, memorizing lists of vocabulary words, and creating artificial sentences to prove their mastery of the lexicon and syntax. When they are exposed to more creative methods of language instruction, they often find it difficult to perform and, as a result, lament the ostensible lack of structure.

Some theorists maintain that because the grammar-translation method is not research-based, it has no academic status. But, as we know, one can always find a matching theory. Grammar-translation’s theoretical base might be called behavioristic—that is, habit formation via repetition and reinforcement. This is a stretch in the sense that the method is really centuries old, having been employed long before Pavlov began torturing dogs to measure their saliva output.

The first theory-based methods of second-language instruction started with François Gouin in the mid-nineteenth century. And even though his work did not win universal and lasting recognition, it set the stage for later theorists.

The Series Method
As the story goes, Gouin’s theory of language acquisition rose out of the ashes of his own failure to learn German. The modern observer can only wonder why he bothered spending a year in Germany sequestered in his study, memorizing thousands of verb declensions and vocabulary words, and all the while, avoiding conversation with native speakers of German. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language by shunning interaction with the very people who speak it. Well, it was the nineteenth century. Discouraged and effectively monolingual, he returned to his native France and discovered that during his twelve-month absence, his three-year-old nephew had become miraculously fluent in French. Wondering how a toddler could so easily out-perform his own considerable intellect, he decided to observe his nephew and other children who were in the process of acquiring language. As a consequence, he was able to theorize that the language one uses is related to one’s actions at the time of the utterance. On these bases, he developed the Series Method, which sought to teach second language by recreating conditions in which children learn a first language. Specifically, the teacher does an activity—walking to the door—and simultaneously verbalizes the process of walking to the door: “I walk toward the door. I draw near to the door. I draw nearer to the door. I get to the door. I stop at the door” (Brown 44). The student then mimics the instructor. As time goes on, the student is able to expand his/her linguistic skills: “Am I walking to the door?” “Did I walk to the door?” “I am thinking about walking to the door. “I am walking to the window.”

Although the method was deemed successful, it faded after a brief hour of glory and the good old grammar-translation method returned in full-dress regalia. Nonetheless, as shall see, the Series Method was gone, but would one day enjoy a resurrection of sorts. Gouin, if seems, was born in the wrong century.

The Direct Method
Second-language theorists maintain that the first real method of language teaching was the Direct Method, which was developed as a reaction against the monotony and ineffectiveness of grammar-translation classes. The Direct Method was the brainchild of Charles Berlitz, a nineteenth-century linguist whose schools of language learning are famous throughout the world. It borrowed and applied Gouin’s findings of the previous generation, seeking to imitate his naturalistic approach. In light of Gouin’s miserable failure in German, Berlitz wanted to immerse students in the target language. He believed, as did Gouin, that one could learn a second language by imitating the way children learn their first language; that is, directly and without explanations of grammatical points and using only the target language. Therefore, grammar was taught inductively. The objectives were speaking and listening comprehension, not translation; for this reason, vocabulary was introduced in context and through demonstrations and pictures; and an emphasis was placed on correct usage and pronunciation. Students learned to write by taking dictation in the target language.

A typical Direct Method class had few students. Students might first take turns reading aloud, preferably a dialogue or anecdotal passage. To test for understanding, the teacher would then ask questions in the target language and students would have to respond appropriately in the target language. Following the question-response session, the instructor might dictate the passage to the students three times. Students would then read the dictation back to the class.

The Direct Method was popular in Europe and the United States, especially during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, its very intensity and necessarily small class sizes made the method impossible for public schools. In addition, it was considered a weak method because it was not supported by heavy-duty theories and it depended too much on teachers’ ability to teach—God forbid—as well as their fluency in the target language. So, it was back to the old reliable grammar-translation method until behaviorism began to shine its light on the field of second-language teaching.

We can thank researchers such as Pavlov, Skinner, and Watson for behaviorism-based techniques employed in US classrooms as well as the Audiolingual Method of second-language instruction. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is based on the concept that learning results from a change in overt behavior. Applied to language acquisition, one learns language by emitting an utterance (operant), which is reinforced by a response by another (consequence). If the consequence of the imitated behavior is negative, one does not repeat the behavior; if the response is positive, one repeats the behavior. Repetition then leads to habit formation. Thus, behaviorists agree with the likes of Francis Bacon and John Locke that one is born a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and all learning is the result of outside stimuli. From this thinking sprang the popular Audiolingual Method, which left grammar-translation by the wayside.

The Audiolingual Method (ALM)The Audiolingual Method was first known as the Army Method because it had been adopted by the military during the Second World War when it became evident that most Americans were hopelessly monolingual. ALM is not unlike the Direct Method in that its purpose is to teach students to communicate in the target language. The Audiolingual Method is a purely behavioristic approach to language teaching. It is based on drill work that aims to form good language habits, and it makes use of extensive conversation practice in the target language. Students enter the target-language classroom with their cognitive slates entirely blank—at least in theory—and they receive various linguistic stimuli and respond to them. If they respond correctly, they enjoy a reward and repeat the response, which promotes good habit formation. If they respond incorrectly, they receive no reward and therefore repress the response, which represses the response. Voila! Fluency.

Its theoretical support also comes from post-war structural linguists. Structural linguists analyze how language is formed, not in a historical-descriptive, or diachronic, sense, but as it is “currently spoken in the speech community” (Stafford paragraph 3). Language was now seen as a set of abstract linguistic units that made up a whole language system. The realization that all languages are complex, unique systems allowed linguists to understand the multifaceted, singular structure of English without comparing it to Latin, which had long been the paragon of excellence among prescriptive grammarians. This led to new thinking in terms of how language should be taught. Individual structures should be presented one at a time and practiced via repetition drills. Grammar explanations should be minimal or nonexistent, for students will learn grammatical structures by inductive analogy.

A typical ALM class consists of ten-minute drill periods interspersed with activities such as the reading and memorization of a dialogue. The instructor then examines a grammar point by contrasting it with a similar point in the students’ native language. (The teacher speaks in the native language, but discourages its use among students.) This is followed by more drills—chain drills, repetition drills, substitution drills. Target language vocabulary is introduced and learned in context, and teachers make abundant use of visual aids. Like its predecessors, ALM focuses on the surface forms of language and rote learning.
While some students, especially those who could memorize dialogues, did well in the classroom, they still were not able to use the target language with any proficiency.

The 1960s shook up traditional thinking about the need to avoid errors and the idea that language learning was a matter of developing good habits by mimicry, repetition, and over-learning. Noam Chomsky entered the scene with a brand new view of first-language acquisition, which had a resounding effect on theories and methods of second-language acquisition. No longer did babies begin life with a tabula rasa; in fact, it was just the opposite—they are born with an innate system of grammar already fired up and ready to go. Behaviorism went right out the window. Humanistic thinkers such as Carl Rogers insisted that people are—well—people. Everyone is a unique individual who responds in her/his unique way to any given situation. No wonder no one had been able to learn a second language! Victims of grammar-translation, the Direct Method, and ALM had been tormented long enough. It was time to compensate for their suffering and devise kinder, gentler teaching methodologies.

David Ausubel was there to help. Influenced by Piaget and other cognitive psychologists, Ausubel theorized that the most important factor influencing learners is what the learner already knows (cf Bowen paragraph 3). He repudiated the old rote-learning methods in favor of meaningful, or relevant, methods of instruction. When material is meaningful, students are able to relate, or subsume, the new information to elements in their cognitive structure (Brown 84). Consequently, a new series of so-called “designer” methods of second-language teaching was developed during the 1970s (Brown 103). Their initial popularity was short-lived; but many linger on the periphery of current methodologies, and some still make cameo appearances in classroom mini-lessons. The underlying message in cognitive language learning is that individual learners must be gently guided toward their own comprehension of prescriptive rules.

Community Language Learning
Developed by Charles Curan in 1972, Community Language Learning dispensed with the hierarchical student-teacher relationship and adopted a counselor-client relationship. The idea was to eliminate any sense of challenge or risk-taking from the emotionally delicate client, which theoretically would free him/her to learn a second language without really trying. The counselor would translate and gently facilitate all learning activity. Community Language Learning was inspired by Rogers’ theory that all living creatures are motivated to live up to their potential; but, human beings are often blocked by environmental and personal problems. Once the problems are eliminated, the individual can live up to his/her potential. We will see that this thinking was further developed during the 1980s by Stephen Krashen in his examination of affective filters. In terms of second-language acquisition, certain affective factors—elements in the environment or in the student’s psyche—may cause a mental block that prevents input (target language) from reaching the language acquisition device” (cf Cook paragraph 5).
In a typical session, ‘clients’ (AKA students) and ‘counselor’ (AKA teacher) are seated in a circle. The counselor begins by explaining what the clients will be doing. When moved by the spirit, one client will raise his/her hand, a signal for the counselor to approach. The client then says a phrase in her/his native language, which the counselor repeats in the target language. The client then repeats the phrase in the target language. The target-language portion of this “conversation” is recorded. The class listens to the recording. The counselor then writes the client’s portion of the conversation on the board and the most courageous fellow clients volunteer to translate the sentences into their native language. All the while, clients receive tender reassurance from the counselor.

Yet another you-don’t-have-to-work-for-anything theory was developed by Georgi Lozanov in 1979. It states that when the mind and body are relaxed, the brain absorbs knowledge without effort. Thus, another academic panacea was applied in the language classroom, producing yet another group of graduates who couldn’t speak the target language. The Suggestopedia classroom uses music—particularly Baroque music with its ideal sixty beats per minute—to help soothe students as teachers employ various language-learning activities. In this classroom, even adult learners are encouraged to behave as pliable, suggestible children, and to regard their teacher as a super-mentor parental figure. Imagery, music, suggestion, relaxation, comfy armchairs, and dim lighting are the essential ingredients of the Suggestopedia classroom. With soft music playing in the background, students role-play and learn vocabulary under the guidance of the all-powerful teacher.

In a typical lesson—or concert—the teacher plays a piece of music, preferably Baroque, but any emotionally charged music will do. S/he then reads a passage from a text in the target language, trying to harmonize with the music while maintaining a slow, rhythmic pace. Students follow along with their own texts and translation. Students then return their translations to the teacher, close their eyes and settle back to listen to a replay of the music and reading performance.

The Silent Way
The Silent Way found its way into classrooms following the publication of Gattegno’s text, also called The Silent Way. According to Sidhakara, the Silent Way “is based on a theory of learning and teaching rather than on a theory of language” (paragraph 1). The objective is to make learning automatic by encouraging students to discover, rather than memorize, the lexicon and prescriptive rules of the target language. This is achieved by teaching students to associate physical objects—specifically, color-coded rods—with phonemes. The teacher is supposed to be a facilitator who only intervenes in students’ learning if they are wandering hopelessly off course. In addition to the colored rods, classroom materials include a sound/color wall chart, with each color representing a phoneme; a 500-word color-coded word chart; a spelling chart, or Fidel, that color-codes all possible spellings for every phoneme; and wall pictures that represent everyday scenes.

While the Silent Way encourages students to become active discoverers, it also leaves them to their own limited communicative devices. Once the uniqueness of the phonemic rods wears off, “the [Silent Way classroom] resembles any other language classroom” (Brown 106).

Total Physical Response (TPR)
In the nothing-is-gone-forever category, Total Physical Response harkens back to Gouin’s Direct Method of the mid-nineteenth century. James Asher reasoned that since children in the process of acquiring their native language seem to listen more than they speak and often react physically to speech, second-language learners might learn a target language in the same way. In addition, he felt that language classes were too stressful for learners, and he wanted to create an atmosphere in which learners didn’t have to do anything other than respond to imperatives such as “Go to the door!” or “Walk slowly to the chalkboard!” Students could absorb other linguistic forms, such as questions by watching and imitating the teacher shrug his/her shoulders, look confused, and ask, “Where is the book?” In these ways, students magically begin asking questions and creating their own commands. In theory, this process guides them to fluency in the target language.

TPR can be an effective methodology in small doses when language learners have no knowledge of the target language. It has the advantage of getting students out of their seats, which alleviates boredom and allows students to associate specific actions with specific language.

In 1983, Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell published The Natural Approach, which set forth both the theory and application of the Natural Approach to language teaching. They had the unique idea that the purpose of language is to communicate meanings and messages (Kiymazarslan II.1), which can be achieved simply by learning the lexicon of the target language. Krashen and Terrell felt that the initial “silent period” should be honored until students begin to speak naturally; that is, when speech in the target language emerges of its own accord. This is supposed to occur when teachers create a non-risky environment by incorporating TPR at the beginning level, and by aiming low in terms of communicative skills; that is, by limiting learning objectives to basic interpersonal communicative skills.

The Natural Approach is supported by Krashen’s famous Monitor Model of Language Acquisition, a set of five hypotheses:
The Acquisition vs. Learning Hypothesis distinguishes the subconscious process of first-language acquisition in children from the conscious process language learning in adults.
The Natural Order Hypothesis states that morphemes are acquired in a predictable order ([-ing] is the first acquired morpheme in English).
The Monitor Hypothesis maintains that acquisition, not learning, is responsible for fluency. Learning—for example, knowledge of grammar and other linguistic structures—functions as a monitor, or editor during and after the acquisition process.
The Input Hypothesis asserts that language is acquired when students receive comprehensible input that is a tad beyond their level of competence.
The Affective Filter Hypothesis claims that one cannot acquire a language unless one feels confident, relaxed, and diverted.

The typical Natural Approach classroom is teacher-centered. Textbooks are not used and it is the teacher’s responsibility to make the classroom experience enjoyable and unchallenging. Students are not expected to be responsible for their own learning. Their role is to absorb the input provided by teachers. The trick is not to tell the students they are learning or to suggest they are capable of making an error. The order of business is to give students a steady flow of comprehensible input and just enough extra information to help them acquire, rather than consciously learn, the target language.

In the Natural Approach classroom, the teacher plays the role of actor and prop person and students play the role of “guessers and immersers” (Rogers fig. 2). The teacher/actor is called upon to create a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere and to develop units of study—or, guessing—based on topics that interest the students (Reynor paragraph 3). Students are encouraged to express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings in the target language. The teacher speaks only in the target language; but, in keeping with the no-pressure approach, students are permitted to use their native language. Theoretically, in this way, students acquire language without effort.

In perusing the literature regarding second-language methodologies and their supporting theories, it is almost impossible to make sense out of the discrepancies in terminology and theoretical bases. For some, the Direct Method is without theoretical basis; for others, it belongs to behaviorism. For some, the grammar-translation method is not a method, but a non-theory-based approach; for others, it is indeed theory-based, because it teaches by rote and assumes that repetition will lead to the formation of correct linguistic habits. For some, the Communicative Method was developed during the 1960s; for others it is a more recent phenomenon that comprises all sorts of methodologies; and still others consider it another name for the Natural Approach. In my own experience as an instructor of foreign language, the only difference between the Natural Approach and the Communicative Method is that in the Communicative classroom, students are expected to avoid using their native language.

The Communicative Method was the flavor of the decade during the 1990s, at least when classroom doors were open. CLT does not teach about language; rather, it teaches language. It is often associated with the Functional-Notional Approach; that is, the emphasis is on functions such as time, location, travel, measurements. In short, it seeks to recreate real-life social and functional situations in the classroom to guide students toward communicative competence. The linguistic accuracy that was deemed so essential in grammar-translation, the Direct Method, and other approaches is a mere trifle in the Communicative classroom. Ideally, grammar is not taught at all. Teachers avoid upsetting their students by requiring them to identify or recognize nouns, verbs, or direct objects; instead, they guide them to second-language proficiency by employing “the three Ps”— presentation, practice, and production. Teachers present the target language via everyday situations; they give students time to practice the language via structured situational dialogues; and, finally, they step aside for students’ production of the language—the phase in which they are able to function independently in the target language.

In truth, many teachers—especially those whose school administrators or university chairs insist that CLT is the heaven-sent panacea for second-language teaching—find the method excessively superficial, uninspiring, and hopelessly without structure. Many close the classroom door and support their teaching units with mini-grammar lessons. Because theorists and administrators—some of whom have never taught or achieved fluency in a second language—support the Communicative Method, in terms of theory years, it has enjoyed a relatively long life. But, it is hardly the superhighway to linguistic competence or proficiency.

Second-language instruction has come a long way since the bad old days of rote learning. Still, it has a long way to go. The trend since the late 1990s has been toward eclecticism, and this is probably the healthiest approach for it accommodates many styles of learning and endeavors to do more than elicit monosyllabic utterances from students. Furthermore, an eclectic approach allows teachers to glean the effective elements from many methods that really work in the classroom. A little TPR is a great warm-up activity; a little prose translation is often a welcome relief from guided conversation in the target language; and a five-minute session of target-language only can give students a sense of true accomplishment.

Language learning methodologies certainly mirror the times in which they thrive; but some have claimed to have virtues that are not evident beyond their theoretical framework. I have attended many faculty meetings in which the chair insisted that teachers “make sure the kids are having fun in language class”—as though having fun were the one and only criterion for success. On the other end of the spectrum, I have observed language classes whose professors demean learners who don’t respond to their textbook approach to language instruction. Neither extreme—fun or misery—is laudable or effective.

The eclectic approach takes the best that theorists have to offer and incorporates it with techniques that work. Language learning is difficult business. Students’ attitudes about school and authority, their home situations, literacy, self-confidence, academic level, identification with their native language and country are only a few factors that affect their ability to learn or acquire a new language. In the end, teachers have a tremendous challenge in trying to give their students the tools with which to function on all levels in the target language.


Bowen, Barbara. “Educational Psychology: David Ausubel.” < http://web.csuchico/.edu/~ah24/ausubel.htm>.

Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching 4th edition. New
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Cook, Vivian. “Krashen’s Input Model of L2 Learning.” Http://privatewww.essexac.uk~vcook/Krashen.htm>.

Reyhner, Jon “Language Immersion for Indigenous Language Revitalization.” Teaching
Indigenous Languages. December 2002.

Rogers, Theodore. “Language Teaching Methodology.” ERIC Digest Sept. 2001 Issue Paper

Sidhakarya, I. Wayan. “The Silent Way Plus: The Search of a Method and Curriculum.”

Stafford, Amy. “Structural Linguistics: Its History, Contributions and Relevance.”

Vedat Kiymazarslan “The Natural Approach: What is it?” 1995.