While trends in education have caused some traditional ESL teaching methods to fall into neglect, teachers often use elements of these methods with success. Each student learns differently, and one method may not fit all learning styles or situations. In addition, cultural preferences often extend to the way students are comfortable learning, and they may favor one method over another. A seasoned teacher will usually use an eclectic approach to meet the dynamic demands of the ESL classroom. (See References 4)

Grammar Translation

This is the oldest of the traditional methods, used in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century to teach classical Greek and Latin. Students study grammatical structure of the language and are given vocabulary lists to master, in addition to drills on verb formation and sentence structure. Students and teacher use their native language rather than the target language in class. Texts are translated merely as examples of grammatical structure and usage and pronunciation is not emphasized. Some students expect elements of this approach to be offered by the teacher, but used in isolation it will not result in the ability to hold a conversation with a native speaker.


Used extensively in language labs from the 1940s through the 1960s, the ALM method emphasizes spoken language. It focuses on grammar, and stresses rote memorization and substitution drills to teach structure. Grammatical structure is taught inductively by practice and repetition. The method focuses on listening, speaking, reading and writing in that order. Vocabulary is strictly limited to the subject matter of the units, but pronunciation is practiced rigorously as students listen to native speakers and repeat sentences and words. Though ALM produces good results for some students, it has fallen out of fashion in the ESL classroom. It is used mainly in prepackaged language courses available in bookstores and online. (See References 1)


First used in France and Germany in the early 20th century, the direct method uses only the target language and never uses translation. Questions about a dialogue or story are asked and answered in the target language and grammar is learned inductively from practice. Verbs are conjugated only after the student has some level of control over the language. Reading is for pleasure, not for grammatical analysis. The direct method is also referred to as the “natural” method because when children learn how to speak their first language they don’t rely on another language to assist them. Likewise, reading is introduced later in the process, after the learner has sufficiently mastered speech.


This method is in wide use today and is based on communication rather than structure. It benefits beginning students because it involves them right away in speaking. They can use their native as well as the target language for clarification or expression, and mistakes are not directly corrected. In this way, teachers facilitate the exchange of meaningful communication in a low-anxiety environment. The challenge is that lack of drilling may lead to broken English in more advanced stages of language acquisition.

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