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The Direct Method
by Steve Schackne

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Many classes I have observed over the years contain an unequal balance of energy. On one hand, we have teachers who furiously move back and forth in the classroom as they busily organize, control, encourage, and assess their students. During this process, many students sit listlessly in their chairs, their eyes saying, “I hear you, but I am not always listening to you.”

Conversely, some classes have teachers sitting back watching students who have been assigned multiple tasks to be completed in a fixed period of time. The students are concentrating on assigned textbook activities or, if it is a communicative task, are either circulating around the room or are busy at their desks giving and receiving information from fellow students. Students often work on time deadlines in these exercises and the goal of completion sometimes interferes with language quality.

I don’t want to generalize too much; both of these scenarios can yield positive results. However, a see-saw of sweating teachers and students isn’t always conducive to learning. A more relaxed, natural approach is a viable option.

Brief History

The natural method, also known as the direct method is often associated with Stephen Krashen and the late Tracy Terrell, but in fact had its beginnings over a hundred years ago in Europe where it began as a response to the grammar translation method. The core feature is its emphasis on the spoken language. Other characteristic features include:

• Teaching vocabulary through pantomiming, realia and other visuals
• Teaching grammar through an inductive approach
• Focusing on question-answer patterns
• Stressing teacher-centeredness

If we view the word natural in its most generic form, certainly speaking and listening would qualify as natural activities more than reading and writing. All people (excepting those with certain disabilities) naturally acquire speaking and listening skills, while reading and writing have to be taught. Conveying meaning through total physical response, such as hand gestures and other body language, is also, arguably, a naturally occurring communicative feature. Assimilating grammar rules through exposure to language is also a naturally occurring phenomenon for native learners, and all languages, of course, have some form of question-answer pattern as filling in information gaps is a primary purpose of language. Teacher centeredness may be the only feature that could be classified as artificial when placed in a language learning model.


Now, let us isolate the individual characteristics even more:

• Spoken language
• Vocabulary
• Grammar
• Question-answer patterns

Certainly speaking, and speaking using question-answer patterns would be considered a more natural communicative approach than teaching vocabulary or grammar. So we start with a lesson based on asking the students questions, having the students answer at least some of the questions, which can, in turn, give rise to other questions—a question-answer lesson.


But what questions do we bring into class? Questions based on a textbook? That would violate our “natural principle” in that a textbook is an artificially introduced language learning aid. Questions based on vocabulary or grammar? That would force us to stray from “real communication” and focus more on semantics and syntax.

In real life whom do we question and what questions do we ask them? We may question our family and loved ones, our colleagues and classmates, or total strangers. Take two or three days and make a note of all questions you ask, and to whom you address these questions. This is not as difficult as it seems, as you can recall many of these at the end of a day. This inventory will give you a catalog of the type of questions we ask during real communication events, and form the basis of questions you can bring into class.

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