language teaching approaches and methods

Unveiling the Classics: A Complete Guide in Revisiting 25 Canonical Language Teaching Approaches and Methods (with hidden modern twists on contemporary language pedagogy)

language teaching approach, language teaching method, language teaching technique

In this article, we will embark on an intellectual journey that traverses the language teaching approaches and methods that have shaped the field till date.

Table of Contents

The canon of language teaching methodologies has evolved over time, reflecting not only the maturation of our understanding of language acquisition, but also the societal values and educational goals of different generations. As language educators, it is essential to recognise the foundations upon which our contemporary pedagogical practices stand, while simultaneously remaining open to the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) modern twists that can enhance our students’ learning experiences.

In this article, we will embark on an intellectual journey that traverses the rich landscape of language teaching, exploring both the time-honoured techniques and the innovative adaptations that have shaped the field over the years.

Now, some of us may initially react with an eye roll, thinking, “Oh, great, another article on language teaching methods. I’ve seen this a thousand times before.” To those sceptics, let me kindly ask for a moment of patience, as this article delves into the fascinating complexities and nuances of language teaching methodologies in a manner that transcends the typical, superficial summaries. Here, I aim to stimulate critical reflection and inspire a renewed sense of curiosity by:

  • Uncovering the historical, philosophical, and cultural underpinnings of each approach or method
  • Examining the interplay between these language teaching approaches and methods and contemporary language pedagogy
  • Identifying practical ways to incorporate them with innovative twists into our modern teaching practices

So, whether you are a seasoned language educator, an educational researcher, a linguistics scholar, or a parent eager to support your child’s language learning journey, allow yourself to be captivated by this plethora of language teaching approaches and methods and discover the boundless potential for transformation that lies within our language classrooms. As we unveil the classics – who knows – we might even create new classics along the way. Onward!

a knowledge base - a knowlege of approaches and methods

What is the difference between Language Teaching Approaches and Methods?

Difference between approach, method, technique
Photo from Envato Elements / A set of Russian nesting dolls depicting the relationship between approaches and methods

Before we begin, I would just like to make a distinction between approaches and methods. Language educators with whom I have interacted have always liked to ask this question. Alongside “techniques”, language teaching approaches and methods can be confusing even for experienced language teachers.

Picture this: approaches, methods, and techniques are like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Each doll represents a different level of specificity, with the largest doll being the approach, the middle one the method, and the smallest one the technique. Now that we have a visual representation, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

The Approach: A Theoretical Framework

An approach to language teaching reflects a particular model, research paradigm, or theory, which provides the foundation for methods and techniques employed. It is the concept within which the other two are nested and it establishes the framework for our teaching philosophy and our understanding of language and language learning.

The Method: A System of Procedures

Moving on to the next nesting doll, we have the language teaching method, which is a collection of processes or a system that offers explicit guidance on how to teach a second or foreign language. It is more specific than an approach, but not operating at a detailed level like the technique. A method can sometimes be compatible with one or more approaches, acting as the bridge between our beliefs about language and the practical implementation of those beliefs in the classroom.

The Technique: A Classroom Device or Activity

Last but not least, we arrive at the innermost nesting doll – the technique. A technique is a specific classroom device or activity that represents the most specific and practical aspect of language teaching. Examples of techniques can include widely used activities, like dictation and repetition, to those exclusive to a particular method, like using Cuisenaire rods in the Silent Way method.

Moving on from here

And now that we’ve unraveled the mystery of approaches, methods, and techniques, let’s dive into our list of 25 canonical language teaching approaches and methods, with newfound clarity and understanding. But remember, though the delineation between approach, method and technique mentioned here can be found in research, it is not a universally accepted one. Whether a specific entity should be categorised as an “approach” or “method” can also be controversial. So, do not be surprised if you find a different nuancing elsewhere. Some of the recommended practical tips may repeat – though you may also find that the canonical approaches and methods seem also to do so with different skins and ideologies.

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1. The Grammar-Translation Method

Our journey starts with the Grammar-Translation Method, rightfully so since it is one of the oldest methods in this list. It is just like an aged oak tree, with roots deeply entrenched in historical, philosophical, and cultural soil. While it may seem overshadowed by the younger saplings of contemporary language pedagogy, there is much to be gleaned from its time-tested branches.

The Grammar-Translation Method has its origins in the teaching of Latin and Ancient Greek (and thus also known as the Classical Method), languages that were primarily taught for the purpose of helping second language (L2) learners read and understand foreign literature, rather than for communication. The fundamental concept of the Grammar Translation Method was that L2 learners should master the skill of translating texts from one language to another, which was achieved by studying the grammar of the target language.

This method also functioned with the assumption that learners get to familiarise themselves with the grammar of their mother tongue through the translation endeavours. The primary aim was to develop learners’ translation skills and achieve a high level of accuracy, with less focus on communication in the target language.

As such, the method’s philosophical underpinnings lie in the belief that language learning is an intellectual exercise, honing mental discipline and fostering appreciation for the intricacies of linguistic structures. The cultural value placed on the study of classical texts further solidified the Grammar-Translation Method as the cornerstone of language education for centuries.

Instruction is mainly given in the mother tongue of the language learners. One of the most surprising points, at least for me, is that the teacher needs not be able to speak the target language. It’s like saying you can drive a car by just reading the manual and understanding how it works. You can even teach driving after that, though I will not send my daughters there.

The Grammar-Translation Method was extended to the teaching of modern languages and regained popularity by dominating the scene of language education from the 1840s to the 1940s. During that era, reading and writing were the thus the main targeted skills and evidence of L2 learning. Despite been the dominant star over the century, the Grammar-Translation Method was remembered with distaste by the learners generally.

Of course, today, we can hardly find language teachers not able to speak the target language that they are supposed to teach. The importance of communication, interaction, and context cannot be overstated in language learning today. Yet, this apparent dichotomy between traditional and contemporary approaches need not be an insurmountable chasm. In fact, a closer examination reveals that some techniques from the Grammar-Translation Method can still hold some ground in the modern language classroom, albeit with a few innovative twists:

  • Foster metalinguistic awareness: While the Grammar-Translation Method prioritises grammatical parsing, contemporary language pedagogy highlights the significance of metalinguistic awareness – the ability to think about and consciously manipulate language. Integrating the two, educators can use translation exercises to not only facilitate grammatical understanding but also to encourage students to reflect on the differences between languages and the choices they make in translation.
  • Cultivate critical thinking skills: The early reading of difficult texts, a characteristic feature of the Grammar-Translation Method, can be repurposed to develop critical thinking skills in students. By engaging in the close analysis of complex texts, students learn to decipher meaning, identify patterns, and draw connections between ideas – skills that are valuable not only in language learning but also in other academic disciplines.
  • Emphasise cultural understanding: The cultural component of the Grammar-Translation Method can be leveraged to foster a deeper understanding of the target language’s culture. By analysing how cultural values and beliefs are expressed in literature or other texts, students can develop a more profound appreciation for the worldviews that shape the language they are learning. In fact, incorporating literature in L2 learning can be very enriching!

2. The Direct Method

Direct Method
Photo from Envato Elements / A sign to represent “Direct”

Our second stop is the Direct Method. The Direct Method, also known as the Natural Method, emerged in the late 19th century as proposed by the Reform Movement to teach languages as living languages and became a powerful alternative to the Grammar-Translation Method. It became popularised by Maximilian Berlitz in early 20th century with the belief that language learning should replicate first language acquisition (although Berlitz termed it the Berlitz Method – which is essentially the Direct Method).

As such, this method highlights the importance of understanding and producing spoken language without translation. This is why there is the name “direct”, which came from the idea that learners should understand the meaning of the target language without translating it into their native language.

We also see a teacher that is more active. They would ask questions, encourage self-correction and facilitate speaking activities. Learners also aim to use the target language without translating and without using their native language to communicate, while instructors should give opportunities for learners to convey meaning through the use of the new language.

You will have noticed. This is the other extreme from the Grammar-Translation Method. While the Grammar-Translation Method focuses on literacy, the Direct Method zooms in only on oracy. Teachers using the Grammar-Translation Method may not even speak the target language, while teachers using the Direct Method need to speak it proficiently and may not know any of the learners’ first languages.

There is no explicit teaching of grammar or culture. Such content needs to be learned inductively. While vocabulary is also emphasised, it is also not taught separately. Learners are expected to understand and reproduce them in context. The ability to speak is primary and is the staple for a language curriculum designed using the Direct Method. There is hardly engagement of literacy skills.

The Direct Method, with its emphasis on communication and exposure to authentic language, can find itself seamlessly integrated into modern teaching methodologies. The advent of communicative language teaching, task-based learning, and content and language integrated learning all could have drawn inspiration from the Direct Method’s core principles.

To invigorate language classrooms with the essence of the Direct Method, educators can incorporate the following practical strategies, alongside fresh twists on these time-tested techniques:

  • Foster an immersive language environment;
  • Encourage the exclusive use of the target language during specific focused activities within class;
  • Integrate technology to expose students to authentic language use in various media forms, such as podcasts, videos, and social media;
  • Create real-life scenarios and role-plays, enabling students to practise their language skills in context;
  • Focus on meaningful communicative situations;
  • Utilize engaging dialogues and anecdotes that are relevant to learners’ interests and needs;
  • Design tasks that promote collaboration, negotiation of meaning, and problem-solving among students;
  • Emphasize fluency over accuracy, allowing students to freely express themselves without fear of making mistakes;
  • Guide students to inductively discover grammar rules and patterns through exposure to authentic language use; and
  • Incorporate cultural elements, such as literature, film, music, and food, to enrich learners’ understanding of the target culture.

3. The Oral Approach (Situational Language Teaching)

Our third stop, the Oral Approach (also known as Situational Language Teaching), has a lot of connection with the Direct Method. British applied linguists then (1920s to 1930s) agreed that the Direct Method is aligned with their proposed direction for English language teaching, but they aspire to establish a more scientific basis for teaching method than what was observed in the Direct Method. Alas, came the birth of the Oral Approach.

The Oral Approach gained prominence in the 1930s and is very much similar to the Direct Method, such as the use of repetition and inductive teaching. Notwithstanding such, it emphasises the use of situations, such as pictures, objects, or realia, as the primary teaching aids. In this method, students are expected to listen and repeat what the instructor says, resulting in a highly teacher-centred learning environment.

Two of the most powerful contributions from the Oral Approach were the efforts to introduce a systematic and logical approach to selecting the vocabulary to be taught in language courses, as well as the grammatical structures (i.e sentence patterns) to be included in a language curriculum. This led to a few publications from these linguists related to these topics, which were regarded phenomenal in that era, and they inspired an approach to curriculum planning for language learning. This also gave the Oral Approach the hallmark to distinguish it from its predecessor, the Direct Method, which lacked a systematic foundation. 

Exploring the interplay between traditional approaches like the Oral Approach and contemporary language pedagogy reveals a fascinating dynamic. While the traditional Oral Approach is akin to a well-crafted symphony, with the conductor leading the orchestra to create harmonious music, modern language pedagogy encourages improvisation, allowing each musician to contribute their unique voice. Contemporary language education recognises the importance of student autonomy and interaction, integrating technology, and fostering critical thinking skills. Thus, there is a need to strike a balance between the Direct Method and our current practices. Below are some suggestions:

  • Utilise technology: Teachers can use digital tools like language learning apps and online forums to create engaging situations and facilitate practice outside the classroom. This allows students to take control of their learning experience and interact with others in authentic contexts.
  • Encourage interactions: While the Oral Approach focuses on listening and repeating, incorporating pair or group work can provide opportunities for students to practice language production and negotiate meaning in context. This creates a more interactive and dynamic learning environment.
  • Integrate critical thinking: Teachers can design activities that require students to analyse and interpret situations, moving beyond rote repetition to develop higher-order thinking skills. This can be achieved through problem-solving tasks, debates, or role-plays, which foster linguistic and cognitive development.

4. The Reading Approach

A teacher reading with group of children
Photo from Envato Elements / A teacher reading with group of children in a nursery

Our fourth stop is the Reading Approach. You will realise that this is also where things start to get a bit messy or predictable. As language educators, we often find ourselves revisiting past approaches and methods in order to gain insights and inspiration for our current practice practically that’s what we are doing now, right? Yet, with the Reading Approach, we will observe the cyclical nature of language teaching approaches and methods where the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other repeatedly.

The Reading Approach has its roots in the Grammar Translation Method, a traditional method of language teaching that puts reading comprehension in the centre and emphasises the study of grammar and translation exercises, with a deliberate sequencing of vocabulary to be learned. Reading was assumed to bring in speaking and listening later where necessary but was the main skill to be acquired. The materials chosen for reading were typically brief texts composed using basic words and sentence structures but can also evolve to involve longer texts.

The Reading Approach was developed in the 1930s (some scholars linked it to the Coleman Report) as an alternative to counter the Direct Method for two main reasons: not many L2 learners can travel extensively at that period to actually interact and communicative with the target speech community and learning a foreign language really meant to access foreign cultures and become an educated person; and that it was not easy to find many language teachers who can actually teach using the Direct Method. This also means, just like the Grammar-Translation Method, that teachers using the Reading Approach need not be proficient in speaking the target language.

Although the Reading Approach has been criticised for its lack of emphasis on oral proficiency and communicative skills, it continues to offer valuable insights and techniques for contemporary language pedagogy. For instance, extensive reading programs with graded reading materials, which encourage students to read a wide variety of texts in the target language, have been shown to promote vocabulary development, reading fluency, and overall language proficiency. Furthermore, the use of authentic texts in the classroom can foster cultural understanding and appreciation, while translation exercises can help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

To incorporate the principles of the Reading Approach into our current teaching practices, we may consider the following strategies:

  • Select authentic texts: Choose texts that are relevant, engaging, and culturally rich, and which expose students to various genres and styles of writing.
  • Control vocabulary: Introduce new vocabulary in a systematic and controlled manner, prioritising words based on their frequency and usefulness in the target language.
  • Teach grammar in context: Present grammar points as they arise naturally in the texts being studied, and relate them to students’ reading comprehension.
  • Incorporate translation exercises: Use translation activities to deepen students’ understanding of the text, develop their critical thinking skills, and draw connections between their first language (L1) and the target language.

5. The Audio-Lingual Method

Photo from Envato Elements / A method that originated in the army

Our next stop is the Audio-Lingual Method which was an oral-based method just like the Direct Method and was again proposed as an alternative to the Reading Approach which did not focus on oracy. As Reading Approach only focused on the comprehension of written L2 texts, it did not contribute much to the formation of oral communicative abilities – expectedly. For learners who only sought to learn the L2 for further education (e.g. through reading content in the L2), this was not a problem. But for those who need to communicate with others, or sometimes pose as the natives in a foreign land, this is not acceptable.

As such, the Audio-Lingual Method emerged as a response to the need for rapid language acquisition during World War II. It was also termed as the “Army Method” since it was mainly adopted in the military as part of the “Army Specialised Training Program”. Considering the conditions that shaped the method, it was meant to be an intensive learning program.

Beyond the military beginnings, the Audio-Lingual Method took stage in mass language education in the 1950s to 1960s. The Audio-Lingual Method was further influenced by structuralist linguistics (as represented by the American linguists Leonard Bloomfield and Charles Carpenter Fries) and behaviourist psychology (as represented by B.F. Skinner) and drew attention on the importance of habit formation and reinforcement in learning.

It was hypothesised that the best way to learning the the target language was through habit formation and reinforcement: teaching learners to respond accurately to stimuli via practice and drills, so that the learners could break away from their L1 habits and create the new ones that are necessary for becoming proficient in the target L2. As such, the Audio-Lingual Method heavily relied on pattern practice, dialogue memorisation, and the development of listening and speaking skills.

Traditional audio-lingual lessons often began with dialogues presented by the teacher or through audio recordings (cassette tapes) in that era), followed by mimicry and memorisation. They can also involve the use of minimal pairs in the teaching of pronunciation. Grammar is learned through the examples provided, rather than being explicitly stated. Cultural context is presented through the conversations or by the instructor. Students’ reading and writing is based on the oral work they had done previously.

Some of us might not be surprised as some of these techniques are also present in our classrooms. To effectively integrate the Audio-Lingual Method into our contemporary teaching practices, educators can consider the following strategies that offer a blend of tradition and innovation:

  • Dialogue-based learning: Build upon authentic dialogues that reflect real-life situations, ensuring that learners can relate to and apply the language skills acquired in meaningful contexts.
  • Interactive activities: Encourage learners to engage in interactive tasks that promote the practical use of language, such as role-plays, debates, and group discussions.
  • Multimodal resources: Utilise various resources, including audio, video, and digital recordings, to support the development of listening and speaking skills while catering to different learning preferences.
  • Scaffolded instruction: Provide structured support and guidance to learners as they progress through increasingly complex language structures, gradually removing assistance as learners gain confidence and competence.
  • Focused rapid drills with error correction: Instead of dishing out only communicative learning activities over a long period of time, focused rapid oracy drills can be implemented periodically to leverage the focus mode of learning and surface mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth, coupled with timely and constructive feedback.

6. The Silent Way Method

Our sixth stop is The Silent Way Method, which can be traced back to the 1960s when Caleb Gattegno first devised the approach. As an educational designer, Gattegno drew inspiration from his experience in developing reading and mathematics programs. According to Gattegno’s hypotheses on learning, learning is best facilitated when the learner discovers or creates rather than memorises and regurgitates previous information.

The purpose of the Silent Way Method is to help beginner-level learners gain oral and listening skills related to the basics of the target language they are attempting to learn. The ultimate aim is to achieve fluency in the target language, and special attention is paid to pronunciation and expression. Interestingly, silence is employed to reach this purpose; the educator employs a combination of silence and gestures to facilitate students’ focused attention on learning and the production of ample language.

As such, the teacher’s role is kept to a minimum in the learning process. While there is still some form of modelling by the teacher for learning (e.g. pronunciation), and that a lot of the activity could be directed by the teacher (e.g. through use of physical manipulatives and gestures), the typical classroom activities are students responding to instructions, questions and visual prompts.

Other than pronunciation and prosody, essential grammatical elements and functional vocabulary are also central to the method. These seem to be introduced and sequenced according to the level of complexity and is targeted at the immediate needs of the learners. However, detailed exposition of the precise selection and arrangement is not given.

The hallmark of the Silent Way Method is probably the use of Fidel pronunciation charts and coloured Cuisenaire rods as part of the arsenal of teaching and learning tools. These materials are vital in building the connection between sound and meaning in the target language.

From a cultural perspective, the Silent Way Method acknowledges that learning is a deeply personal and individual process, thus empowering learners to take control of their own language acquisition. Of course, it is not restricted to language lessons and can also be extended to other content subjects (remember Gattegno was also developing Mathematics programs).

To be honest, The Silent Way Method appeared to be a very innovative method, somewhat ahead of its time. However, a closer examination of the method may enable one to realise that it takes reference from other approaches or methods that came before, such as the Oral Approach or the Audio-Lingual Method. It relies on a conventional structure and vocabulary and emphasises accurate repetition of sentences modelled by the teacher, albeit minimally, and progressing from guided elicitation to further unguided communication.

Nevertheless, the principles of the Silent Way Method very much align with modern constructivist and experiential learning theories, which underscores the importance of active, hands-on learning experiences. Furthermore, the incorporation of problem-solving activities fosters critical thinking and collaborative skills, which are essential competencies for the 21st-century learner.

To effectively integrate the Silent Way method with innovative twists into our contemporary teaching practices, we can consider the following strategies:

  • Resist the urge to always provide the answers to students’ queries: Intuitively, this may be how teachers may respond in a classroom. However, if teachers can facilitate discovery of the answer by the students or at least invite peers to provide the possible answers, there is more deliberation in the nurturing of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Utilise technology to create interactive and engaging learning experiences that reinforce the Silent Way principles: For instance, incorporating multimedia tools or interesting physical manipulatives to encourage learners to actively participate and take ownership of their language development.
  • Plan instruction that promotes learner autonomy and foster a more collaborative environment: This can be achieved by incorporating flexible seating arrangements, creating designated spaces for individual or group work, and encouraging peer feedback.

7. The Cognitive Approach

After a slight break from the pendulum swings, we hit the next one in the Cognitive Approach. From late 1960s to early 1970s, the Cognitive Approach emerged as a reaction to the behaviourist features of the Audio-Lingual Method. Drawing inspiration from cognitive psychology, as highlighted by Ulric Neisser‘s work in 1967, and Chomskyan linguistics, as theorised by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and 1960s, this approach presents a paradigm shift in thinking about learners in language education.

Central to the Cognitive Approach is that learners are conceptualised as active, constructive and having the capacity to plan or strategise their learning processes. Unlike the behaviourist tradition as espoused in the Audio-Lingual Method, they are not framed as passive respondents to environmental stimulation.

As such, it is vital to examine the techniques or strategies individuals use for thinking, remembering, understanding, and engaging language. In this regard, language learning is conceived as the acquisition of a complex cognitive skill and not habit formation. The automatisation of component subskills is necessary to be integrated subsequently into fluent performance.

As a cognitive process, learning is viewed to be involving internal representations that regulate and guide performance. For language learning, these representations refer to internalised knowledge of the language system which include procedures for selecting appropriate vocabulary, employment of grammatical rules, and pragmatic conventions governing language use. Learners undergo constant restructuring as they simplify, unify, and gain increasing control over their internal representations. The iterative processes of “automatization” and “restructuring” is central to cognitive theory and essential for the acquisition of language skills.

The Cognitive Approach brings to salience the importance of individualised instruction and learner responsibility. Reading and writing is again foregrounded, with the de-emphasising of pronunciation perfection – something that is seemed as unrealistic and unattainable due to linguistic performance issues. Grammar instruction is also highlighted, with the target for balancing between inductive and deductive methods.

One of the most prominent learning points from the Cognitive Approach is the framing of errors as inevitable phenomena in the learning process. In fact, learners are to be encouraged to capitalise on errors to re-construct their hypotheses about the language (as to re-structuring). Teachers adopting the Cognitive Approach are required to possess strong proficiency in the target language and the ability to analyse it.

We may have recognised traces of the Cognitive Approach in our practices today. But it is also good to know that this approach was not really contemplated as a teaching approach, as it is more focused on the learner. It is more about building the Science of Learning in a certain sense. Nonetheless, it has a lot of insights to offer according to which we can also incorporate into our teaching practices:

  • Recognise the use of learner strategies: This is an entire field of research that we can be concerned about. At the very minimum though, we can reflect with our learners on their various strategies in learning the target language and exercise high awareness in the monitoring of personal learning – metacognition.
  • Approach language learning with inductive and deductive designs: Depending on the content or skills that we are engaging, a good blend of inductive and deductive designs can be very helpful in activating the different modes of learning in the students.
  • Capitalise the use of errors: We know the very importance of the Growth Mindset. While the notion of errors can sometimes be controversial (need to be placed in contexts for validity), they are invaluable moments for learning and should also be seen as natural milestones that learners should pass. Framing errors as opportunities for learning can also motivate our learners to engage in the iterative process of experimentation to “restructure” and move towards “automatisation”. 

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8. The Immersion Approach

Immersion in language
Photo from Envato Elements / A baby boy experiencing immersion

Our eighth stop is an approach which emerged quietly and in parallel to the rise of the Cognitive Approach in the 1960s to 1970s – the Immersion Approach. Much like bringing beginning L2 swimmers to the L2 pool for a “language bath” with support, the Immersion Approach plunges students into a world where the target language is the medium of instruction for all content subjects.

The Immersion Approach is rooted in the Canadian French immersion programs of the 1960s, which aimed to promote bilingualism and foster positive attitudes towards the French language and culture among the learners with English as the L1. Subsequent immersion programs around the globe have adopted similar goals, with a focus on additive bilingualism, where fluency in the target language does not come at the expense of the L1.

There are different degrees of immersion when the Immersion Approach is adopted. To qualify though, the programs must use the L2 for at least 50% of the curriculum. This means that other content subjects such as Mathematics, Sciences, Humanities, or Arts are to be taught in the target L2 amounting to at least 50% of the curriculum time (e.g. French in the case of the Canadian French immersion programs). In practice, immersion programs can range between 50% (partial immersion) to 100% (full or total immersion).

In terms of content, the curriculum scoping of content subjects in the immersion programs parallels that of the local L1 curriculum. In other words, a student learning in the immersion program is expected to acquire the knowledge in content of common subjects (e.g. Mathematics, Sciences) comparable to those in the monolingual non-immersion programs.

The goal of immersion is to expose learners to the target language as much as possible in a language-rich environment, to the point where learners are forced to use the target language in real-life learning contexts, and it becomes a natural part of their daily life. The classroom culture will also reflect the local L1 community. This means that not only will students learn the target L2, but they will also learn about the culture, customs, and social norms of the target language community while also using the language in the respective areas of the content subjects.

Notwithstanding such, even in the context of Canada, the Immersion Approach is more popular in the early years such as pre-school and elementary standards though it is also implemented in secondary schools. Particularly, the concern usually lies with parents and even educators and policymakers that the students may not match up with their counterparts in monolingual schools using English as the medium of instruction, especially since the international academic language is mostly English for those content subjects.

Learners who enter the immersion programs usually have limited proficiency of the L2. The teachers are usually bilingual and provides overt support for the learners in their L1 where required. Despite so, exposure to the L2 is largely confined to the classrooms.

In general, research findings on the learning outcomes of the Immersion Approach have been encouraging, though with a caveat on one’s definition of success. If we are targeting proficiency levels in two languages, research has generally converged on the understanding that the performance in L1 (e.g. English for the Canadian French immersion programs) and subject matter (e.g. content subjects across the overall curriculum) is comparable between learners in immersion programs and their peers in English-monolingual programs. While there might be a lag in the earlier years, immersion students catch up with some immersion even outperforming their monolingual peers.

In terms of L2 proficiency, learners in the Immersion Approach definitely outperform those who only offer L2 classes with limited time per day (e.g. 40 mins to 1 hour). However, the L2 learners may display shortcomings when compared to the L1 speakers of the target L2 (i.e. or more precisely people who spoke the target L2 as a L1, such as French L1 speakers). This includes differences in accuracy of grammar and vocabulary knowledge and use.

Despite decades of successful implementation of immersion programs around the world with positive results, the Immersion Approach remains an anomaly either as an educational approach or as a L2 teaching approach. It still grapples with recognition, administrative issues, in addition to the harsh reality that the term “immersion” is applied in an imprecise manner to all sorts of bilingual programs, resulting in dilution of the concept in its original inception and the rich Canadian research spanning several decades.

Indeed, immersion is not without its challenges. For one, it can be difficult to create a fully immersive environment for L2 learners in all contexts, especially if the learner is not living in a country where the target language is spoken. Additionally, the Immersion Approach may not be suitable for all learners, as some may find it too overwhelming or stressful especially without adequate support from stakeholders and relevant institutions (e.g. standard assessment, placement systems).

Yet, there remains much wisdom from which we can extract from the Immersion Approach in our current practices. While maintaining the core tenets of immersion, modern adaptations can integrate technology and meaningful tasks, alongside differentiated instruction to cater to individual learner needs and preferences. Some practical ways to blend this time-tested approach to our teaching practices in innovative ways are as follows:

  • Use of the target language to learn content in other subjects: This serves to form meaningful contexts of language use for the learners, where learners can leverage or reinforce content to learned in another part of the total curriculum while forming representations of those content in the target language. 
  • Employ culturally responsive teaching pedagogies: Incorporate diverse cultural perspectives and materials of the target L2 and culture into the curriculum, promoting intercultural understanding and appreciation.
  • Plan for short-term full immersion activities: While we may not have the luxury to implement full immersion as part of our total curriculum, we can still try to plan for short-term immersion learning where learners are placed in actual meaningful communicative contexts where the target L2 is exclusively or extensively used (e.g. short trip to where the target L2 community resides, short period cultural camps).

9. The Total Physical Response Method

Using the body to convey a message
Photo from Envato Elements / Nursery kids using different hand signs to demonstrate meaning

At this stop, we reached a method that is still very prevalent in language education for pre-school and elementary children. It is most suitable for those who are not yet capable of expressing themselves verbally but have developed emergent understanding of the spoken target language (i.e. beginning listening comprehension).  

A wise old adage claims, “Actions speak louder than words.” In the realm of language education, this saying finds itself echoed in the this method, the Total Physical Response Method (TPR). By tapping into the natural process of language acquisition, TPR bridges the gap between pre-oracy and actual oracy capabilities in beginning learners.

The TPR method emerged in the late 1970s when Dr James Asher sought to create a comprehension-based language teaching approach. Drawing inspiration from the way children naturally acquire their first language, Asher posited that understanding spoken or written language precedes the ability to produce it.

Consequently, he designed the method to focus on meaning and comprehension, using physical movements as a response to verbal input. In this way, students become performers, actively engaging with the language without the pressure of verbal response. Asher concluded that this was the most efficient and least stressful way to demonstrate comprehension in a new language without translation into one’s L1.

So, how exactly does it work? Well, imagine we’re teaching a group of English L2 learners the vocabulary words for different parts of the body. Instead of just having them read the words off a page, you could ask them to stand up and touch the parts of their own body as you say the words. For example, you might say “touch your nose” and the students would all touch their noses. Or you might say “raise your hands” and the students would all do so.

While the method is more prevalently used with pre-schoolers and elementary children, the method was targeted at adults in its inception. Remembered when I said that Asher drew “inspiration from the way children naturally acquire their first language”? There were also other theoretical underpinnings other than the emulation of L1 acquisition.

One was the multimodality of the learning process. The notion of “trace memory” holds here where the more unique and intense a memory connection is made, the easier it is to recall the memory in question. As such, a language entity combined with a motor activity in TPR provides more stimuli for recollection, in contrast to just the sole linguistic objects. This is also aligned with the findings within the Learning Sciences.

Another relates to the anxiety involved in the learning of languages, especially in the case of L2. This is a perennial theme that we do also observe with adults (or maybe especially so with adults), where people fear to speak up or use the L2 due to many psychological and social reasons. TPR sorts of mitigates that since learners have an alternative mode to express their comprehension.

Of course, with the use of TPR, it is not too difficult to realise the limitations. Since the method associates language learning with a motor activity, anything relates to languaging that is more abstract or where comprehension cannot be demonstrated physically, the TPR method becomes inapplicable. It is also almost irrelevant when complex grammatical structures or representations are to be learned.

Nevertheless, the TPR method is useful as a bridge between pre-oracy and actual oracy. With that in mind, TPR offers many opportunities to be integrated into our teaching practices:

  • Scaffolding: Traditional TPR activities can be blended with contemporary scaffolding techniques, allowing students to gradually build their language skills with increasing independence and confidence, before moving completely to abstract language use.
  • Collaborative Learning: Combining TPR with cooperative learning strategies can encourage peer interaction, enabling students to learn from one another as they engage in physical activities related to the target language. For instance, you can invite one peer to give commands while others respond physically to the commands.
  • Differentiation: Adapting TPR activities to accommodate diverse learning preferences and abilities can ensure that all students can participate and succeed.
  • Drama: A more elaborate and extended version of the method will be the use of drama or role-playing mechanisms in the class. It can excite learners and provide a whole range of opportunities in creative expression and use of the language.

10. The Affective-Humanistic Approach

Our next stop is an approach which underpins the way many subsequent methods were designed. Just like a gentle breeze that refreshes a weary traveller, the Affective-Humanistic Approach emerged in the 1970s language teaching landscape to soothe the arid atmosphere of the classrooms then.

This Affective-Humanistic Approach (or sometimes just simply the Humanistic Approach) has its roots in humanistic psychology and educational philosophy, from which it blossomed as a reaction to the general lack of affective considerations in both the repetitive drill-and-practice which typically characterises the Audio-Lingual Method, and the technical mental strategies which were exemplified in the Cognitive Approach.

The core principles of the Affective-Humanistic Approach encompass respect for the individual and seek to drive meaningful communication, collaborative learning, and a supportive class atmosphere, all of which contribute to a harmonious learning environment. To be more specific, these can be unpacked as follows:

As one might expect, principles of the Affective-Humanistic Approach are already not too distant from our current practices – we seem to observe some of these in our classes today. As such, when I highlight the ways this approach can be implemented alongside our contemporary practices, it may be more of a reminder rather than an innovation:

  • Empathy and rapport: Cultivate a warm and inclusive classroom atmosphere by demonstrating genuine care and empathy for students, fostering mutual respect, and building rapport. Create more space for experimentation, and allow learners to feel safe in taking risks and making mistakes.
  • Authentic materials: Utilise authentic materials, such as newspaper articles, podcasts, and videos that interface with topics of their interest or with high salience in their daily lives, to engage learners in meaningful communication and expose them to real-life language usage.
  • Capitalise on collaborative learning: Encourage cooperative learning through pair and group activities that promote peer support, interaction, and shared problem-solving. Peer teaching can be very empowering and effective, if you have not tried it.
  • Reflection and self-assessment: Provide opportunities for students to engage in self-reflection and self-assessment, which can facilitate self-awareness and personal growth.

11. The Suggestopedia / Desuggestopedia Method

Three women listening music against the wall
Photo from Envato Elements / Three women listening music against the wall

Our eleventh stop, the Suggestopedia/Desuggestopedia Method, is one of the exemplary methods that demonstrate the principles of the Affective-Humanistic Approach. To me, this is THE most fascinating method in the list. In using this method, the teacher becomes a sort of hypnotist, where he/she provides the conditions to lure the learners into a relaxed state so that they can absorb language without even realising it. It’s a bit like being in a spa, but instead of being covered in mud and hot stones, learners are covered in language.

The Suggestopedia/Desuggestopedia Method, pioneered by Bulgarian psychologist Georgi Lozanov in the 1970s, is rooted in the psychology of suggestion. In a nutshell, “suggestion” refers to the cognitive process through which an individual intentionally or unintentionally steers desired thoughts, emotions, or actions in oneself or others by introducing stimuli that can trigger them automatically, without requiring conscious effort.

The foundational belief of this approach is that individuals possess the capability to learn vast amounts of material with ease, yet societal conditioning fosters the misconception that learning is challenging. This misconception often leads to anxiety and tension, which subsequently creates psychological barriers to effective learning. Therefore, the Suggestopedia Method intends to overcome these obstacles by using different suggestive strategies to unleash the unexplored learning capabilities present within the individual.

The basic idea behind Suggestopedia is that our minds work best when we are relaxed and happy. So, the teacher creates a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere in the classroom, perhaps with soft music and comfortable chairs, to help the students feel at ease. Then, they introduce language in a way that is supposed to be enjoyable and stress-free.

Typically, a language classroom which adopts the Suggestopedia method may use the following techniques:

  • Utilisation of “baroque music, where it is believed to be using precise rhythms to access the subconscious mind with the aim of unlocking latent learning potential. In simpler words, this is music that is meant to put the listener into a relaxed and suggestible state – like elevator music, but with a specific purpose.
  • Conduct of “concert reading” where the teacher reads a text (typically dialogues) to the students in a slow, deliberate, and rhythmic way, almost like singing (usually accompanying music) and in 2 phases – the active concert where the students are actively learning the material, and the passive concert where students immersed in passive acquisition. The idea is that the rhythm and melody of the activity helps the students remember the language more easily.
  • Peripheral learning through the use of environmental elements (e.g. posters), where language learning materials are placed in strategic positions to attract learners’ attention in diffuse mode, enabling them to acquire language-related material even when they are not actively engaged in it.
  • Adoption of imagined identities, where learners adopt new names in the target language and also take the roles of new professions. Throughout the duration of the course, they will develop comprehensive biographies to accompany their new identities.

We can definitely find inspiration from the Suggestopedia Method in experimenting with techniques that place the learners in a position of high agency. Notwithstanding that, the Suggestopedia Method in its prototypical mode does require the teacher to be directing the lesson though there is much observance of the humanistic individual.

Taking reference from the Suggestopedia Method, interesting features that we can consider integrating in our modern practices include:

  • Foster a supportive and relaxed learning environment: Evaluate the environment in which our students are learning and eliminate unnecessary pressure and expectations from the learning process, allowing students to focus on the joy of language acquisition. For instance, if weighted assessment or graded assignments are proven to impede the learning process, we should be more strategic in planning for these activities.
  • Engage learners in role-playing activities: By assuming different personas or roles, students may find it easier to overcome self-imposed limitations and experiment with new language skills. Furthermore, with an imagined role, students may find it less threatening to make mistakes, when the new role can also be rehearsal of real-life language use.
  • Utilise the power of music and intonation to enhance learning: Incorporate relevant music and rhythmic speech patterns to facilitate memorisation and comprehension of language materials.

12. The Community Language Learning Method

community group learning session
Photo from Envato Elements / A group counselling session

At this stop, we look into another representative method of the Affective-Humanistic Approach: the Community Language Learning (CLL) Method. This method was developed by Charles A. Curran and his associates in the 1970s to address the observations that adult learners tend to feel threatened by a novel learning situation where change is inherent and there is the fear of appearing foolish. In a sense, this represents the potentially stressful and threatening L2 learning experiences for many adults as mentioned in the presentation of TPR.

Grounded in the principles of counseling-therapy especially for groups, CLL aims to create a warm and nurturing environment by fostering a supportive network of human relationships, enabling learners to feel accepted and ready to commit themselves to the learning process. In this method, teachers are repositioned as “language counsellors” – not in the psychological sense, but as skilful “understanders” of the struggles students face while internalising a new language. By empathising with students’ fears and being sensitive to their needs, teachers can transform negative feelings into positive energy that fuels learning.

Interactions that take place in a CLL classroom can be classified into two main types: those that occur between learners and those that occur between learners and those who possess the knowledge (“knowers”). Interactions between learners tend to be spontaneous, where learners collectively make decisions about the content on which “languaging” is based, although the common observation is that those content tend to be emotional exchanges. As the class grows into a community of learners, the intimacy of these exchanges deepens. Learners are motivated to keep up with their peers’ learning to be part of this growing intimacy.

The other type of interactions that happen between the learners and the “knowers”. In the early stage, the exchange is typically characterised by the learner expressing the content he/she wishes to say in the target language and the knower will then demonstrate or provide guidance on how to phrase it correctly. Beyond the early stage, the learner gradually gains independence and becomes effectively capable of interacting with the knower as an “equal”.

CLL values both thoughts and feelings in the learners – it treats both the teacher and learners as “whole persons”. Learners are expected to participate as active agents – just like in counselling – and the whole class is seen as a community while smaller pairs and groups are also seen as subsets of the larger community. Every learner is expected to participate and contribute to the learning of others as he/she grows herself.

CLL makes active use of the L1 in the early stages of adoption and slowly dilutes its use according to the progress of the students. This does help to alleviate the anxiety that usually comes with the exclusive use of the L2 right at the onset, such as the Direct Method or Oral Approach.

In an educational context that fosters stronger collaboration between learners and framing of students as holistic learners, CLL has quite a bit to offer for incorporation in our current practices with some innovative twists:

  • Harness the potential of peers as “knowers”: Gone are the days that the teacher is the sole proprietor of knowledge engaging in a knowledge and skills downloading process. Peers can potentially become facilitators of learning too, where they can be empowered as peer teachers and peer language counsellors as guided by CLL.
  • Instill empathy and understanding in the learning process: Instead of adopting a hard stance on certain ways that the target language should be taught or used, we can be more encompassing to the different possibilities, scoping and content domains to which our learners may be more open. This can sometimes mitigate students’ unseen struggles, fears, and needs in the language learning process.
  • Adopt a counselling approach in addressing the additional needs of selected learners: Facilitate group conversations and provide support as a language counselor, offering guidance and assistance when needed for learners who may require additional support than the average.

13. The Whole Language Approach

We are finally halfway through our journey and we have now landed on the Whole Language Approach. Let’s not get disillusioned, this approach is not the full English breakfast of all the approaches and methods earlier. It emerged as a response to the limitations of the decoding-centred pedagogy for teaching reading and writing in the L1 and was then woven into the fabric of language education in the 1980s.

Fundamentally, this method challenged the conventional partitioning of language into separate elements like grammar, vocabulary, and phonics; and espoused a view of language as a “whole” entity that cannot be deconstructed. Advocates, such as Rigg (1991), contended that deconstructing language in this manner deprives it of its essence, derailing the ultimate goal of authentic communication and enjoyment in reading and writing.

As such, the Whole Language Approach frames language acquisition as a natural process that occurs through exposure to authentic language in context. As priorities, the approach targets literacy development, such as the ability to read and write, through natural approaches (think about the Direct Method earlier and the Natural Approach later) with a focus on authentic communication. This implies that authentic literature (“naturalistic input”) is favoured in these classrooms, as opposed to texts that are crafted and tailored (“modified input”) for language learning.

The Whole Language Approach also emphasises the joy of learning in the context of reading and writing, extended with the integration of all the language skills (the integration of reading, writing and other skills). Aligned with these beliefs, techniques such as process writing and group reading are quite common within instruction that adopts this approach.

The Whole Language Approach is generally philosophical in nature – driven by strong dispositions that language learning should be integrated and enjoyable. In particular, it tends to reject direct teaching, the development of specific skills in isolation, and the use of tailored materials (e.g. textbooks written for language learners). Positioned as such, it gets intertwined in debates with other approaches in particular on its impact on literacy development.  

In the contemporary language pedagogy landscape, the Whole Language Approach offers a refreshing counterpoint to traditional methods that narrowly focus on isolated skills or components. While the importance of phonics and other foundational skills should not be entirely dismissed, a balanced integration of these approaches with the holistic, learner-centered principles of the Whole Language Approach can yield a more robust and effective language teaching practice. To incorporate this method, we can consider the following strategies:

  • Use authentic texts: Utilise engaging, culturally relevant, and age-appropriate authentic texts to encourage genuine interest in reading and writing, while simultaneously exposing students to the nuances and complexities of the target language.
  • Collaborative learning: Foster opportunities for students to work together on reading, writing, and speaking tasks, encouraging peer feedback and shared meaning-making experiences.
  • Promote the joy of learning: Be mindful in addressing the affective needs of the learners, even as we adopt a more technical approach to teaching language analytically in segments. The joy of learning can be embedded in techniques that present information in different ways or factoring in certain forms of individual agency for the learners.
  • Plan for the transfer of linguistic knowledge between skills: Leverage previously learned skills to teach new skills. This is almost a given in developmental psychology, that we leverage previous schemata to build new knowledge.

14. The Competency-based Approach

young lady making presentation to a business crowd
Photo from Envato Elements / A young lady making a business presentation

Our first stop past the halfway mark is the Competency-based Approach (also known as Competency-Based Language Teaching) which emerged with roots deeply embedded in the practical world of the 1970s. The focus of the times then was on tangible, measurable outcomes rather than the arduous journey of acquiring knowledge. This means that the journey of learning itself was de-prioritised where people started to zoom in more on the tangible can-do outcomes.

The philosophy of the time was simple: learn the language in relation to its social context and use it to achieve specific goals – any route to the destination is good, as long as the roads bring us there. We may take a moment to gasp in horror, but underneath this seemingly unorthodox philosophy lies the seeds for a transformative institutional planning for language education.

The Competency-based Approach focuses on defining educational objectives by describing the knowledge, skills, and behaviours that students are expected to acquire by the end of a course in SMART terms as much as possible. This is somewhat akin to the framework of Understanding by Design, where the end-points are defined first before designing the routes – which is rather different from the approaches and methods presented hitherto.

The “competencies” as mentioned in this approach refer to the learners’ capabilities to use a variety of fundamental skills in circumstances that are frequently faced in everyday life. However, the competencies are unpacked according to the analysis of communicative language into appropriate parts and sub-parts. In a sense, it runs contrary to the philosophy of the Whole Language Approach and espouses the “mosaic” view that the parts and sub-parts can be taught and assessed in a step-by-step manner, allowing for gradual learning and ultimate mastery of the language as an integrated construct.

Due to its direct relevance for placement and employment, the Competency-based Approach has gained popularity over the years, and we have seen the creation and maintenance of major frameworks (e.g. CEFR, ACTFL, HSK) that illustrate the measurable outcomes comprehensively. These frameworks have also been referenced by major institutions which run assessment, which in turn provided business opportunities for many language learning or tutoring organisations training learners to clear these exams. Arguably, it becomes the tool for measuring accountability and investment.

Notwithstanding such, the Competency-based Approach has guided the design of many language curricula at the national levels across many systems. While actual teaching and learning practices in specific classrooms may not be primary competency-based, the curriculum design and scheme of work can be highly associated with a Competency-based framework (e.g. CEFR in Europe).

In the context of contemporary language education, it is unimaginable to completely shield our learners from the powers of the institutions enforcing the high-stake assessment (e.g. IELTS) at the other end of the Competency-based Approach. Notwithstanding, the notion and teaching techniques arising from the approach can also be incorporated in the following ways to enrich our practices:

  • Contextualise the content: Design lessons that present language in its natural habitat, i.e., within authentic contexts that learners are likely to encounter in the real world. For example, use news articles, podcasts, or movie clips to expose students to language use in various situations.
  • Combine grammar and function: Balance the teaching of grammar rules with functional language usage. For instance, create activities that require learners to apply grammatical knowledge to complete real-world tasks, such as writing a formal email or engaging in a debate.
  • Promote collaboration: Encourage learners to work together on tasks that require them to use language functionally and interactively, as demanded in real-life professional contexts. For example, assign group projects that require learners to negotiate, persuade, or problem-solve as part of a professional scenario while using the target language.

15. The Comprehension-based Approach

Heading into our fifteenth stop, we observed that the pendulum seems to oscillate at a lower magnitude to the other end, where more and more approaches/methods seem to be more settled with anchors in authentic communicative contexts as basis and taking reference from a mixture of research in education and language sciences.

The Comprehension-based Approach emerged as an outgrowth of research in L1 acquisition in the 1980s with Krashen and Terrell (first published in 1983) as the main proponents in asserting that L2 or foreign language learning bears striking resemblance to L1 acquisition. This approach highlights the importance of listening comprehension as the foundational skill, which would eventually allow speaking, reading, and writing to develop spontaneously over time, provided the right conditions are met.

As the name suggests, understanding of “meaning” is the focus of teaching and learning in this approach, as opposed to form (e.g. structures, rules). At any moment in time, learners are expected or aimed to be developing the ability to comprehend at a faster rate than the ability to produce. In fact, learners are not expected to produce speech until they feel comfortable to do so. In other words, they are allowed to remain silent until they are ready in the language classrooms. One representative method under this approach is the Total Physical Response (TPR) as presented in our ninth stop.

The interesting part of the Comprehension-based Approach is that the main benefit can also be its drawback – two sides of the same coin. The recognition of the silent period enables the learners to develop the confidence through large amounts of exposure to meaningful communicative texts in the target language before engaging in active production. Yet, this may also be an impediment as learners may develop the belief that achieving flawless speech is the ultimate goal before they start speaking their first words.

The Comprehension-based Approach was an important milestone to bridge the gap between research in L1 and L2 acquisition to language education. Following this emergence, more attention was given to research in these domains in the planning and enactment of teaching practices in language classrooms. The contemporary language pedagogy can also take reference from some principles or techniques that comes along with the Comprehension-based Approach:

  • Design for language learning experiences with rich amounts of target language input: Learners do require a critical mass of input to develop holistic representations of the target language. The input needs to be characterised by a range of factors like quantity, variability, and frequency for the necessary “acquisition” to happen.
  • Facilitate production with sensitivity: The learning from the notion of the silent period reminds us that not all learners are ready to produce at any point in time. We need to mindful that learners resistant to production can be facing anxiety issues which we should mitigate rather than enforcing production indiscriminately. This demonstrates respect for the learners and create a sense of autonomy in them.
  • Formulate activities that elicit nonverbal responses: Taking reference from TPR, activities that demand physical responses such as matching, sorting, or organising instead. This alleviates some of the requirement to produce a language when the learners are not yet ready.
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16. The Natural Approach

natural, nature, naturalistic input
Photo from Envato Elements / A scene of a natural landscape

Our sixteenth stop, the Natural Approach, is another representative approach that is also considered Comprehension-based. An important point at the outset in differentiating between the Natural Approach and the Comprehension-based Approach is that the Comprehension-based Approach is larger umbrella that can include methods such as the TPR and even the earlier Direct Method. The Natural Approach, on the other hand, is specifically the approach as proposed by Krashen and Terrell in 1983 with its specific set of principles derived from the research on L2 acquisition by Krashen.

Another important distinction to be made is between the Direct Method and the Natural Approach. As mentioned earlier, the Direct Method is also known as the Natural Method, where the main focus is to serve the L2 or target language raw – without recourse to the L1. The “naturalness” lies in the argument that learners are engaged in the use of the target language in the most natural way.

While the principle to use the target language without translation to the L1 is also embraced in the Natural Approach, it does not emphasise teacher monologues, direct repetition, formal questions and answers, or the accurate production of target-language sentences like the Direct Method. Instead, the Natural Approach foregrounds “comprehensible input” – an important construct proposed by Krashen in his series of L2 acquisition hypotheses – as the main driver of language acquisition. At the core of the Natural Approach is the idea that learners develop an internal system through understanding a vast amount of comprehensible input which subsequently enables them to engage in spontaneous communication.

So, what is “natural” about the Natural Approach? The concept is that the approach emulates the processes of L1 acquisition in children which are thus the “natural” means of language acquisition. Explicit learning of grammatical rules and structures is unnecessary, and is argued to only support “monitoring” of language use (Monitoring Hypothesis) and has limited effects on language acquisition per se. In a sense, true-blue language learning that leads to active spontaneous use can only be achieved through exposure to large amounts of comprehensible input.

The Natural Approach is highly influential, such that the principles it propagates still guide the teaching practices of many teachers today. As such, recommendations to incorporate the Natural Approach in contemporary language pedagogy might be an overstatement as these may already be current practices. Nonetheless, below are some means how the Natural Approach can factor in your classrooms:

  • Provide adequate amounts of comprehensible input: Use real-world materials, such as newspapers, advertisements, and social media posts to expose learners to the natural use of language in a wide range of contexts and provide them with a rich source of comprehensible input. Theoretically, it helps learners to perform form-function mapping more easily without facing the additional difficulty of meaning disambiguation.
  • Leveraging technology: Digital tools, such as language learning apps and online resources, can provide learners with access to a wealth of comprehensible input and foster opportunities for authentic communication with L1 speakers.
  • Use a combination of semiotic devices to guide meaning disambiguation: In L2 contexts, other than using the L1 as scaffolding means, we can also rely upon the strategic and skilful of other semiotic devices (e.g. visuals, gestures) to support the representation and disambiguation of meaning in texts.

17. The Communicative Approach (Communicative Language Teaching)

A group of friends in a happy interaction
Photo from Envato Elements / A group of friends engaged in an interaction

This stop is possibly the most prominent stop that we will revisit. Majority of teachers today, regardless of languages that they teach, will probably declare that they are using the Communicative Approach. As a paradigm, it has become the most widely adopted approach even though the unpacking of the approach differs from institution to institution and from individual to individual.

The Communicative Approach emerged in the midst of discontent and disorientation by the previous approaches and methods that were more dominant, such as the Audio-Lingual Method and the Oral Approach. Even though the Chomskyan revolution inspired new thinking about what constitutes linguistic ability, there was still a rift between linguists that hold a structural view of language vis-à-vis those that maintain a functional perspective.

Particularly, there were converging debates pertaining to the question of the entity to be acquired for language abilities to manifest. Chomskyan linguists argue for the existence of linguistic competence – a latent capacity or the underlying system of linguistic knowledge consisting of various components that is critical in determining whether someone knows a language. In other words, learning a language is akin to acquiring the linguistic competence related to the target language.

Linguistic competence is contrasted with linguistic performance which is the actual use of language in real-life communication. Linguistic competence has an effect on linguistic performance; without competence, there are no means by which a speaker can use a target language. However, linguistic performance is also affected by other variables that may cause “underperformance”, such as memory limitations, processing constraints, and situational contexts (e.g. noisy environment having an impact on perception).

To Chomskyan linguists, linguistic competence is the rightful scientific indicator of knowing a language and should be the primary focus of linguistic inquiry. As such, they devised tools to distill the “noise” of the distractors in linguistic performance to consolidate the innate knowledge of the underlying system as, which are essentially the grammars of the individual languages. Language here is defined as a complex rule-governed system of discrete units.

Functional linguists consider language to be a means of communication and therefore argue that it cannot be fully comprehended without considering the environment in which language is operationalised. They believe that language cannot be isolated from the factors of social, cultural, and psychological influences that shape its application. Consequently, they argue that linguistic competence by itself is not enough to provide a complete representation of knowing a language.

In addressing this adequacy, the term “communicative competence” was coined by Hymes (1972) to capture a more holistic representation of what it means to know a language. To Hymes, an effective language user is not solely characterised by the implicit knowledge of the grammar as implied in “linguistic competence”, but also one who is able to demonstrate “communicative competence” – the underlying knowledge of language to use it appropriately and interactively in various social contexts, such as using the right register, appropriate slangs/jargons or polite means of rejection.

Later on, Canale and Swain (1980) proposed a model of communicative competence that included several components. The model identified grammatical competence (which is linguistic competence), sociolinguistic competence, strategic competence, and discourse competence as additional competencies that contribute to overall communicative competence. This framework has been widely adopted as the standard for language teaching and learning that aims to develop learners’ communicative abilities.

The primary goal of the Communicative Approach is thus to develop the learners’ communicative competence as unpacked. Learners play an active role in this approach. They are encouraged to engage in activities that simulate various kinds of real-world communication (e.g. role-plays, discussions, debates, presentations) to perform different kinds of functions (e.g. instrumental, interactional, heuristic, imaginative, representational). Students are also exposed to authentic materials, such as newspapers, podcasts, and videos, to help them understand language in context and be able to transfer their skills to novel real-life situations where those materials will be encountered.

The rise of the Communicative Approach was widely recognised in the 1980s, where it gained momentum and was implemented in various forms, leading to the creation of numerous language learning materials that adhered to its principles. This approach remains the most widely cited among language teachers despite the fact that they may not fully understand how to develop communicative competence and its components. Heading in the 1990s and onwards, the Communicative Approach continues to be the foundation that inspires other approaches or methods.

It is highly possible that you are already adopting some techniques from the Communicative Approach in your classroom. Still, below are some suggestions how you may consider enhancing some of your current practices:

  • Embrace the role of facilitator: Shift the focus from front-loading information to a higher proportion of facilitated meaningful communicative activities. Encourage students to express themselves freely while providing guidance and support when necessary.
  • Promote learner autonomy: Foster an environment that empowers learners to take charge of their language learning journey. This could involve encouraging learners to set personal communicative goals, self-assess their progress, and engage actively in the target language communication.
  • Incorporate diverse kinds of authentic communicative situations in the classroom: Expose learners to a wide range of communicative situations that will require them to employ different registers, domain knowledge, language skills and such, so that learners are well prepared and capable of transferring learning to the new contexts (i.e. able to use the target language accordingly).
  • Foster interaction and collaboration: Encourage students to work in pairs or groups to engage in problem-solving tasks, role plays, and discussions. This not only promotes the development of communicative competence but also fosters interpersonal and intercultural skills.

18. The Content-based Approach

Remember the Immersion Approach ten stops ago? The Content-based Approach (also known as Content-based Instruction) in the current stop is somewhat a superordinate category of that approach. And the stop we just ended, the Communicative Approach? Based on Howatt (1984)’s observation, there is “weak” version of the approach as found in language teaching where the target language is the subject of learning (e.g. “learning of English”); and a “strong” version, where the target language is used to learn another subject (e.g. “using English to learn it”). The Content-based Approach is thus an example of a “strong” version. 

As a “strong” version of the Communicative Approach, the Content-based Approach gives priority to communication over a syllabus of pre-selected linguistic content, and teaching through communication rather than teaching only for it. The Content-based Approach integrates language instruction with subject matter instruction from the various domains, allowing students to acquire language skills as a by-product of learning about other content (e.g. using L2 as the medium of instruction to learn Mathematics, Sciences, Design and Technology, Music).

How is this different from the Immersion Approach mentioned in the eighth stop? If we recall, the Immersion Approach must use the L2 for at least 50% of the curriculum. Based on this requirement, we can consider the Content-based Approach a larger concept which can also encompass those that fall below 50%, perhaps just for a couple of non-language content subjects or the use of content themes to organise language learning. The most defining characteristic is that any curriculum which adopts the Content-based Approach is not exclusively a language program but is one which is designed around specific content domains.

A Content-based Approach can place additional demands on the teacher. We are not solely interested in the language learning outcomes by definition (though in reality we are usually not – we care for their growth in other areas, right?). When students learn academic content in a L2, they usually need a great deal of assistance to understand the related material and gain the necessary academic language related to the content domain. Therefore, it is important for teachers to demonstrate clarity in the identification of goals distinctively for language and the corresponding subject matter in their classes.

Why do we want to stretch the teachers and learners in such ways? The Content-based Approach is anchored on two principles: that people tend to acquire a L2 more effectively when they utilise it as a tool for acquiring knowledge and information, rather than simply studying the language for its own sake; and that it simultaneously addresses the basic motivation why L2 students are wanting to acquire the L2 – to access academic subjects subsequently in the country. 

Lessons adopting the Content-based Approach tend to be organised in a way such that the language skills are integrated with the natural need to access or produce the content relevant for the subject matter, somewhat akin to how the L2 might be used in the real world. In other words, students tend to listen, speak, read, and write at any instance where required. Any grammatical knowledge is only taught where required and is usually relevant to the learning of content.

The Content-based Approach sends very important reminders about contextualising language learning for our learners in contexts that are the most relevant to them, where they are able to use the L2 as part of a necessary ecosystem, rather than learning the L2 for the sake of learning it. Based on this understanding, below are some suggestions on how such principles can provide innovation to our teaching practices (even if we operate in another paradigm) with certain twists:

  • Integrate age-appropriate content that can engage the students cognitively and affectively: Language learning cannot be conducted in a vacuum; it needs content as a vehicle to present linguistic issues for learning. Even when the curriculum which we deal with is centred around a syllabus which is designed around linguistic considerations (e.g. grammatical progression), we can still choose to use content which can be appealing for our students, albeit suitable for their age groups.
  • Design interdisciplinary units of learning: Create thematic units that combine language learning with other disciplines, such as history, science, or literature, that allow students to explore the content while simultaneously developing their language skills. Such integrated units (which can become projects) provide authentic scenarios for students to apply the use of their L2.
  • Collaborate with experts of other subject matter: Foster a collaborative learning environment with your colleagues who are content experts and possibly teaching other non-language subjects. This can potentially enable students to develop a stronger perception of the relevance of the L2 beyond the language classrooms.
  • Assess language skills in context: Evaluate students’ language skills within the context of the content, focusing on their ability to communicate effectively and understand the subject matter, rather than simply testing isolated linguistic components.

19. The Lexical Approach

Our nineteenth stop is the Lexical Approach, which is also primarily a type of approach with the Comprehension-based Approaches (as seen at the fifteenth stop). The Lexical Approach was first announced in 1993 (Lewis, 2008) to respond to the common organisation of language syllabi around grammar and functions. To Lewis and proponents of this approach, the centrality to a structured language is posited to be the lexicon – the building blocks of language lie in words and lexical phrases or more fondly termed as “chunks”.

The Lexical Approach argues that language is fundamentally made up of chunks which can then be combined to create a natural and coherent use of language. Accordingly, there are 4 types of chunks: words, collocations (the co-occurrence of certain words naturally in a specific language with greater than random frequency), fixed expressions (e.g. social greetings like “good morning”, politeness phrases like “thank you”) and semi-fixed expressions (e.g. could you please…., what was really annoying was…).

In the Lexical Approach, the lexicon assumes a more prominent role in language organisation, learning, and teaching, thus influencing syllabus design, course content, and teaching activities. The main benefit here, is that if the lexical items are selected and sequenced skilfully and strategically, learners build up a mental lexicon that is most relevant to their immediate communicative needs.

In a language classroom which adopts this approach, the teaching and learning of lexical items is the main activity. Exposure to large amounts of input, as also advocated in the Natural Approach, is highly valued. This is the basis where learners then get to be stimulated with language learning data on which they can then form hypotheses. On a similar note, repetition is also highly valued, as that helps to reinforce the memory on the use of the chunks in contexts and how chunks go together. However, negative evidence is also argued to be vital for learners not to over-generalise with whatever they have seen.

Despite a series of very specific proposals made by the approach, scholars have generally evaluated the Lexical Approach to be weak in the grounding of its theoretical claims during its early days in the 1990s. With more support from advancement in corpus linguistics and developments in lexical and linguistic theory, there have been stronger evidence for a Lexical Approach though it has generally fell out of favour as a main guiding approach. Notwithstanding, there is some wisdom we can still lend from this approach to innovate our own practices:

  • Leverage technology for spaced repetition in vocabulary acquisition: The acquisition of the mental lexicon and the reinforcement of newly learned lexical items do require repetition to work, according to findings from the Science of Learning. As such, technology is a powerful enabler to help us achieved repetition – furthermore at the best moments. Many language learning apps, such as Duolingo, utilises this approach to aid vocabulary acquisition.
  • Introduction of lexical items as chunks: Again, the use of chunking as a technique to facilitate retention within memory is also something supported by the Science of Learning. With more support from corpus linguistics, lexical items that generally appear in natural language more often than average can be introduced in harmony, so that learners can efficiently acquire a critical amount of lexical items for use.
  • Design the use of formulaic language strategically: Beginning L2 learners can benefit from the quick start to using some of the most commonly used formulaic sequences in the language. It gives them some building blocks which they can draw for actual communicative contexts to build confidence and sustain motivation to learn the more complicated aspects of the language.

20. The Multiple Intelligences Approach

multiple intelligences
Image generated by ArtSmart / A group of friends engaged in an interaction

Our next stop is an approach which is not specifically designed for language learning, but is premised on the groundbreaking work of Howard Gardner in the recognition of natural human talents from a culture-free perspective. This model, known as the Multiple Intelligences Model, has become a cornerstone in the realm of general education. Gardner’s revolutionary perspective on intelligence stands in sharp contrast to traditional models, such as the traditional IQ testing model, which often suffer from conceptual narrowness.

Gardner identified eight native intelligences that encompass various aspects of human ability:

  • Linguistic: the mastery of language (something which we are pursuing for our learners) for functional and creative expressions;
  • Logical/mathematical: the capacity for rational thinking and problem-solving;
  • Spatial: the ability to visualise and create mental models of the world;
  • Musical: the sensitivity towards music and harmonic sounds;
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic: the facility of coordinating motor movements and controlling the body;
  • Interpersonal: the competence in working with others effectively;
  • Intrapersonal: the aptitude for self-understanding and the application of one’s talents effectively for personal growth and development; and
  • Naturalist: the capability in identifying and organising the patterns of nature.

By acknowledging these multifaceted intelligences, Gardner’s model paves the way for a multisensory representation of educational experiences. It opened up conversations about “talents” and directed educators and parents away from getting trapped in a narrow definition of “intelligence”. This empowered individual learners, especially children, to become intelligent in their own unique ways.

The Multiple Intelligences Approach is not purposed in achieving some form of linguistic learning outcomes. What it proposes though, is to enrich the learning experience of the learners across different domains so that learners have the potential to reap their hidden talents. As a guiding philosophy, learners are also nurtured to be self-directed designers of their own learning. One could make a case for the possibility of better language learning outcomes when the learners are more motivated.

In contrast to a one-size-fits-all approach of traditional teaching methods, the Multiple Intelligences Approach fosters a more personalised and student-centred learning experience. By recognising and catering to the unique blend of intelligences that each learner possesses, language educators can create an environment where students can thrive and reach their full potential:

  • Design lessons and activities to cater to the diverse range of intelligences: Let variety guide the way and make the learning experience a more enjoyable one, where students have the opportunity to ignite various intelligences. In the process, students might also discover their personal strengths which they can leverage for further learning. Different students can shine at various opportunities.
  • Encourage students to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses: Using constructs in the various intelligences, we can guide them to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and make deliberate plans to empower them in taking ownership of their learning process.
  • Foster a collaborative learning environment: Lay the foundation to allow students to learn from each other’s strengths and develop a deeper understanding of the material. Inspiration can come from how certain students may exemplarily use a certain intelligence to represent and use language (e.g. tapping on spatial intelligence to draw comic strip layouts to represent communicative situations).

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21. The Task-based Learning Approach (Task-Based Language Teaching)

not to be made mandatory
Photo from Envato Elements / An authentic task that needs to be completed

Remembered when we earlier stated that the Content-based Approach is a “strong” version of the Communicative Approach? At this stop, we reached another “strong” version: the Task-based Learning Approach (Task-based Language Teaching). In that sense, while language learning is an objective, the target language is somewhat used to learn subject matter in another domain – more of using the language to learn it, as opposed to learning of the language per se.

In relation to this, where how the organisation of the curriculum should be premised, was discussed by Wilkins in 1976. According to Wilkins, there are two types of language learning syllabi: the synthetic syllabi and the analytic syllabi. The synthetic syllabi are organised around linguistic units, such as lexicon with the Lexical Approach, grammatical structures in the Oral Approach or functions with the Competency-based Approach. Typically, these linguistic units are systematically arranged based on the level of simplicity progressing to complexity. The learners themselves are tasked with integrating the separate jigsaw pieces to effectively communicate.

With the analytic syllabi, however, the logic of organisation takes reference from the types of communicative situations in which learners are expected to engage in authentic contexts. For the Content-based Approach, the curriculum is fundamentally the content subject (e.g. syllabus for mathematics, music) or specific themes (e.g. climate change). For the Task-based Learning Approach, instruction is planned and delivered based on the use of communicative and interactive tasks as the core units.

How is a task defined in the approach? Nunan (2004) makes a distinction between two types of tasks: the target task which refers to an actual real-world communicative activity and can be anything from ordering food at a restaurant to making a phone call to a friend in the target language; and the pedagogical task which are transformation of the target tasks to be used in the classroom context and designed purposefully to support learning.

To avoid confusion between any random language learning activity in the classroom and the precise concept of “task” as intended in this approach, it is important to recognise that the emphasis of a “task” is on “meaning” and that the process of accomplishing the communicative outcome(s) in the attempt to complete the “task” is more important than other goals. Also as important, the “task” which is pedagogical in nature needs to have a target (i.e. real-life) version. For instance, writing a composition with the objectives of hitting a 200-word count and the use of pre-designated sentence structures will not count as a “task”.

Though the only process that is used, a typical sequence of a complete cycle in the Task-based Learning Approach involves the following phases:

  • Task input: Learners are exposed to the target task as it is in real life, with considerable language input to effect some extent of language acquisition as well as contextualising the authentic operating environment in which the task will take place. This helps the learners to build the connection of the classroom activity to the real-life application to facilitate the transfer of learning later on and also motivate the learners by experiencing the relevance of the task.
  • Pedagogic task work: Based on the deliberate unpacking by the teacher, learners construct the skills and knowledge necessary to support their targeted level (e.g. with scaffolds, in groups, independent) in completion of the task. This may involve some form of reflection in identifying the gaps between what learners already know in relation to what they experience of the target task in the earlier task input phase.
  • Target task performance: Learners are required to synthesised all that they have learned into completing the target task, subject to conditions designed by the teacher. At this phase, usually the learners are also invited to observe their processes in completing the task.
  • Task follow-up: This is somewhat the feedback and reflection phase, where learners are engaged to review their task performance and the identification of specific actionable strategies to enhance their performance. Depending on design, the learners can be looped through the cycle, albeit an expedited version, to reinforce their learning and validate their new hypotheses of how they can improve.

While the beginnings of the Task-based Learning Approach appeared to be in the 1980s, it really took flight in the 1990s and became one of the most prominent approaches in the Communicative Approach paradigm. Many commercial curriculum and materials have thus employed its principles in their design, although critics have also labelled many of such as “counterfeit tasks” – they were not based on a curriculum centred around tasks as core units but were just conceptualised or designed to practise prior identified linguistic structures and functions in a traditional grammatical, functional, or skills-based syllabus.

While we need not be “purists” in our approach, the Task-based Learning Approach has strong validations from research in terms of its efficacy in developing communicative ability. As such, below are some suggestions on how we can incorporate it into our practices:

  • Design tasks that integrate different skills can address a wide range of learning needs: There are many target tasks that are complex to a level (e.g. conducting a corporate presentation) that learners can benefit from “rehearsing” in a classroom context. Such tasks can demand learners to call upon their different skill sets (potentially their “multiple intelligences”) for completion, and different learners can excel at different stages.
  • Encourage a reflective practice: Guide and encourage learners to reflect on their task performance and language use as found in the task follow-up phase, identify areas for improvement, and set personal learning goals. This is extremely helpful in developing self-directed learners who are able to build on their personal strengths and work on their weaknesses beyond the classrooms.
  • Use Capstone projects to motivate: Capstone projects can be motivating when students have something exciting to look forward to after the acquisition of knowledge and skills in between. Capstone projects are somewhat natural fit for a Task-based Learning Approach and can become blockbuster moments of a language curriculum. 

22. The Cooperative Language Learning Approach (Collaborative Learning)

active deep learning, what is peer teaching
Photo from Envato Elements / A learning activity that requires peer collaboration

We have reached the twenty-second stop, which is the Cooperative Language Learning Approach. The Cooperative Language Learning approach is a subcategory of Collaborative Learning, which is a more comprehensive teaching methodology that also encompasses other subjects. Essentially, Cooperative Language Learning employs cooperative activities that involve pairs or small groups of learners to their fullest extent in the language classroom.

The historical roots of this approach can be traced back to proposals of peer teaching even in the ancient times. In the early 20th century, when educational theorists such as John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky also drew attention on the importance of social interaction in learning.

Heading into the 1990s, with the advent of the Communicative Approach which foregrounds communicative competence as the prioritised goal of language learning, as well as the increasing contention that a teacher-fronted teaching norm generally only favours the privileged students and incited unhealthy competition rather than encouraging healthy collaboration. As a result, educators aimed to bring about a change to make education more egalitarian in its philosophy and approach, where learners are placed in the centre of a learning process.

Specifically for language classrooms, the Cooperative Language Learning Approach purposes in facilitating language acquisition through more opportunities of exposure to naturalistic input in interactive pair and group activities. Furthermore, such arrangements also present authentic contexts for learners to negotiate meaning and develop communication strategies; as well as empowering learners to play an active role in learning and foster a more positive affective classroom climate.

However, it’s important to note that collaborative learning is not without its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles is ensuring that all students are actively engaged and contributing to the group. If one or two students dominate the conversation or refuse to participate, it can negatively impact the learning experience for everyone.

To overcome such a challenge, it’s important for teachers to provide clear guidelines and expectations for group work, monitor student progress, and provide support and guidance as needed. By doing so, teachers can help to create a positive and productive cooperative learning environment that promotes language learning and social skill development.

Like some of the approaches and methods listed in this article (e.g. the Suggestopedia/Desuggestopedia Method, the Multiple Intelligences Approach), many of the techniques that come with the Cooperative Language Learning Approach are not specifically designed for language learning. This also makes it easier to tap on wisdom from other educators on an extensive range of collaborative strategies. Notwithstanding such, below are some ideas that you can implement in your classrooms to supercharge language learning for your students:

  • Peer Teaching: I have written one complete article on this earlier. Peer Teaching is an instructional approach in which students learn from one another. Students take on the role of teachers to facilitate learning within their group or classroom. There are many benefits, including a better quality of learning, the development of skills in other dimensions as well as improved communication and presentation skills.
  • Jigsaw Learning: With the increased accessibility to information on the web, students can be tasked to research on different related topics and become “experts” in different areas. Teachers can then tap on their wisdom to organise specific learning activities where these “experts” can exchange their wisdom with one another.
  • Group Projects: As suggested under the Task-based Learning approach, projects can be meaningful units within a scheme of work to challenge students to consolidate their learning and demonstrate it in an authentic context. As with real-life scenarios, this need not be a one-man show. Group projects (e.g. doing a group presentation in solving a real problem in the community, producing a podcast that can become listening texts) provide many opportunities for students to demonstrate their strengths and reflect upon their areas for improvement.

23. The Content and Language Integrated Learning Approach

Our twenty-third stop is the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) Approach which is also a variant of the Content-based Approach, thus also making it another example of a “strong” version of the Communicative Approach. This means that the L2 is also used to learn content in another domain; language is not the sole target of learning – “using the language to learn it, as opposed to learning of the language”.

Some scholars described CLIL as the European name for the Content-based Approach. In other words, it is just a matter of nomenclature. However, other scholars established features of CLIL that distinguishes it from the Content-based Approach (usually in North America) that qualifies it as a variant rather than an identical parallel.

Firstly, while both the Content-based Approach and CLIL require teachers to identify both content and language learning objectives, CLIL has espoused the philosophy that it places equal importance on both or at least a higher importance on language. The Content-based Approach is still primarily more focused on content in ideology.

Secondly, in the Content-based Approach, the target L2 is usually a dominant language that is present in the learners’ residential society. In other words, the learners are usually those of migrant families or communities using minority languages operating in the society where the majority language is the L2 (e.g. usually English for many of what we are describing). For CLIL, however, the L2 is usually either English or some lingua franca that is not that widely present in the immediate language environment of the learners (e.g. English in Germany).

Thirdly, teachers who adopt the Content-based Approach are generally L1 speakers/users of the medium of instruction (e.g. English speakers teaching Science in English) whereas teachers in CLIL are more commonly found to also be L2 speakers/users of the target L2 (e.g. German speakers teaching Science in English). In addition, the target L2 in CLIL can also exist as a single language subject alongside the content subjects within the total curriculum.

CLIL emerged in mid-1990s but became increasingly prominent after the turn of the millennium, especially with a stronger movement towards bilingualism/multilingualism in Europe. Notwithstanding this, even with increasing take-up rates within Europe, we cannot assume that CLIL is a universal approach to bilingualism/multilingualism in the region.

The research on the effects of CLIL on content learning has been mixed. There is a body of studies which highlighted that while CLIL students might experience some lag in content acquisition for the subject matter (something also found within studies evaluating the Immersion Approach), the difference is neutralised over time. Yet, with some other studies, negative effects have been found over a longer term.

The research on CLIL’s impact on language learning, in contrast, has been overwhelmingly positive. CLIL students tend to outperform their peers on many tested areas, such as vocabulary, syntactic complexity, listening and reading comprehension, writing, and language awareness. This suggests that CLIL holds great promise as an approach to promote bilingualism/multilingualism, particularly since it is implemented in the K-12 contexts within Europe.

We may not be in Europe. In fact, we may not be operating in a context that uses or is inclined in doing anything close to the Content-based Approach or CLIL. However, the positive findings from CLIL can provide insights to some of our teaching practices – something that we can do within the locus of our own classrooms:

  • Thematic integration: Select themes that resonate with learners’ interests and cultural backgrounds, using these as a foundation to amass content as vehicle for language instruction. For instance, a unit on environmental conservation can be taught, integrating relevant vocabulary and grammatical structures while exploring the topic in-depth.
  • Leverage content learned in non-language subjects: Our learners do not attend language lessons in a vacuum. They are also going through education in other subjects and accumulating wisdom from the learning of content in other disciplines. We can leverage those content in our language classrooms, reaping the benefits of removing an additional layer in understanding a topic and reinforcing the knowledge learned in a different language.
  • Disciplinary literacy as part of language learning: One major characteristic of using language in academic learning is the acquisition of disciplinary literacy in the language. This is an important reminder for us to consider the range of language input that we should consider in our own language classrooms, so that our learners can get accustomed to varying registers, different patterns of languaging, and habits of engagement.

24. The Dogme Approach

Having reached our twenty-fourth stop, we encountered a radical development of circumstances. Since the turn of the millennium, the evolution of language teaching approaches and methods have also taken on a revolutionary turn. As we reflect on our journey, it is important to remember the metaphor of the pendulum I mentioned at the beginning. The direction of language learning ideologies and approaches tends to swing back and forth, often influenced by developments in education and language research.

However, the discourse of language teaching approaches and methods has generally moved to a notion of the post-methods era – or the transition to move away from any approach or method – starting in the 1990s and maturing in the 2000s. The general sentiments were that approaches and methods appeared to be dogmatic, where the roles of teachers and students are apparently prescribed, and that principles and techniques which can be adopted fixated. This can cause tensions when contextual factors seem to contradict the assumptions of the approaches or methods.

To make things worse, with the increasingly connected and globalised world, the demand for language learning also skyrocketed. Language education became more commercialised, and many businesses tend to anchor on a specific approach or method in the offering of their language learning products or services. Certain approaches and methods became marketed as the gospel for language education.

It was within this context that the Dogme Approach came. Conceived by a group of language educators led by Scott Thornbury, the Dogme approach was a response to the increasing commercialisation and commodification of language teaching. Drawing inspiration from the Danish film movement, Dogme 95, and the works of influential educational thinkers, such as Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky, the approach emphasises learner-centeredness, interactivity, and the co-construction of knowledge.

There are three defining pillars of the Dogme Approach. First is the prioritisation of organic conversations. As a fundamental manifestation of language, conversations are viewed as an essential component for effective learning, beyond just simply a result of learning. By engaging in conversations, learners engage in active meaning negotiation coherently at the level of discourse, rather than springing off isolated disconnected ideas at the level of sentence (as found commonly in published textbooks). Despite such a declaration, the Dogme approach does not exclude written texts in driving learning too as long as similar principles prevail.

The second pillar is the most noticeable one: the Dogme Approach advocates for a materials light environment. This means that more emphasis is placed on student-generated material than pre-published materials and textbooks which can be culturally irrelevant or inappropriate. Furthermore, pre-published materials and textbooks are targeted at markets that will buy them. For learners from certain contexts, they are generally not as useful as presumed.

The last pillar pertains to the belief in how language learning occurs. The Dogme Approach believes that language is best acquired through natural emergence according to the organic development of conversations that happen in the classrooms, as opposed to the teaching of pre-planned vocabulary and grammatical structures. The teacher’s role is to facilitate such emergence by fostering the circumstances such as setting a conducive environment for open conversations, invitation of learners to engage one another as well as to make explicit acknowledgements of learning when it happens.

While earlier approaches and methods often utilise published materials and textbooks, the Dogme approach advocates for a more organic, spontaneous, and conversational learning environment. In this setting, both teacher and student are integral participants in the learning process, allowing language to emerge naturally through dialogue and negotiation of meaning.

The Dogme Approach has gathered quite a bit of following since its inception, although the approach is still been refined and clarified. Should we like to experiment with some of the techniques used in this approach for our own practices (though not necessarily adopting the approach – we are in the post-methods era, remember?), below are some suggestions for consideration:

  • Use learner-created content to drive further learning: Encourage students to generate their own materials, such as texts, videos, or audio recordings. This fosters a sense of ownership and increases engagement in the learning process.
  • Engage in dialogic teaching: Implement group discussions, debates, or role-plays to stimulate critical thinking and facilitate language development through social interaction.
  • Implement an emergent language focus at appropriate times: Rather than always rigidly follow a predetermined syllabus, allow language points to emerge naturally from the communicative needs of the students, guiding their attention to relevant lexical items and grammatical structures.
  • Critical use of published materials: When using textbooks or other published materials, encourage students and teachers to question and challenge the cultural and ideological biases they may contain. This can spark meaningful discussions and further enrich the learning experience.

25. The Translanguaging Approach

engaging in translanguaging
Photo from Envato Elements / Different speakers harnessing resources from their linguistic repertoire

We have finally reached the last stop of our journey: The Translanguaging Approach. It will not be an understatement to say that the Communicative Approach has been the most influential approach for language teaching since the 1980s. Many of our subsequent approaches and methods (e.g. the Task-based Learning Approach, the Content and Language Integrated Learning Approach) have been premised on its principles and have continued to take reference so till today. Even the Dogme Approach, which has been conceived in a post-methods context, espoused the key defining principles of the Communicative Approach in its three pillars.

However, with the popularisation of the Translanguaging Approach since 2009, the experimentation of this approach has escalated over the years, demonstrating its potential as a possible contender directing the next wave of approaches and methods. Of course, with a higher adoption of a post-methods philosophy, language teachers and institutions may not necessarily adhere to a single approach and method specifically. Yet, the Translanguaging Approach has the potential to offer a more holistic and inclusive route to language teaching and learning.

I have earlier given a comprehensive introduction to Translanguaging and its efficacy in language classrooms. Basically, in its inception, the Translanguaging Approach has its origins in Wales during the 1990s as an educational approach to develop bilingualism. Specifically, students received input in one language and produce output in another as part of that approach. The key purpose of the approach is to enable engagement of the content through both languages systematically, to develop deeper understanding of the subject matter as well as reinforcement of both languages in question.

Beyond this, the meaning of “Translanguaging” has been expanded beyond the classrooms to denote the actual dynamic language practices of bilinguals. The Translanguaging Approach draws on the work of representative scholars such as Ofelia García, who argues that bilingualism should be seen as a resource rather than a deficit, implying that the “dynamic language practices of bilinguals” should be leveraged to facilitate learning. This line of research emphasises the importance of valuing and building on the linguistic and cultural diversity of students in the classroom.

The Translanguaging Approach challenges traditional approaches to language education that presupposes the separation of languages and the exclusion of students’ L1s from the classroom. In contrast, the Translanguaging Approach promotes the use of all languages – the full linguistic repertoire – in the classroom as a means of facilitating learning.

What are some examples of natural translanguaging? This can be found in the natural use of languages in bilinguals and multilinguals, such as parents conversing in different languages with each other and with the children or within the internet activity of a bilingual who may be browsing websites in different languages to look for the best deal or most accurate information.

In the classrooms, it can be the use of all linguistic resources available to aid brainstorming for a writing activity; or the use of multilingual labels to enhance the connection of L1s to L2; or making salient the presence of cognates in different languages to enhance retention in memory of new words.

Interestingly, the Translanguaging Approach does not exactly reject traditional language pedagogy entirely. Rather, it seeks to become an innovative empowering differentiator by supplementing the additional resources from other languages for the target language. For example, traditional grammar instruction can be supplemented with activities that incorporate the learners’ L1s through comparing and contrasting grammar rules across languages.

If you are willing to suspend some of the ideological barriers to using another language to help your learners learn the target language, below are some further suggestions that may be worth your experimentation (do read up my article on the efficacy of the Translanguaging Approach so that you can also be mindful of both the benefits and the drawbacks):

  • Peer Teaching: This can be facilitated by grouping or pairing L1 and L2 speakers of the target language, where the L1 speakers can be a coach for the L2 speakers for the target language, while the L2 speakers can also teach the L1 speaker their own L1. This adds an additional perk to the learners: everyone grows bilingually!
  • Engage in various modes of languaging: Design interactive activities that allow learners to use their language practices freely in one designated period of time, while also challenging them to only use the target language in another designated period of time. The ability to inhibit and use freely represent different modes of how a bilingual functions, and such a technique can condition them to adapt to different demands of language use in real-life situations.
  • Use multilingual texts: When using textbooks or other published materials, you can deliberately look for texts which have versions in different languages to enable learners to do cross-lingual comparisons. This can lead to heightened multilingual awareness, as well as metalinguistic awareness for the target language.

Conclusion: What is the best language teaching Approach or Method in the contemporary age?

We have finally completed our intellectual journey of the 25 approaches and methods of language teaching in this extended article. The fact that the field has given birth to so many comprehensive approaches and methods is a testament to the ongoing search of educators for the most effective and innovative approaches to language learning.

Since the birth of the most popular paradigm the Communicative Approach, research in education, linguistics and the learning sciences have also surged dramatically. We are better positioned today to stand on the shoulders of giants and access more rigorous evidence to have better sensing of how different approaches and methods can be used more effectively – and even whether those approaches and methods are valid and beneficial in the first place.

As the world and its languages continue to evolve, it is also essential for language educators to continue exploring and experimenting with new approaches, while also reflecting on the successes and failures of the past. By doing so, we can build on the foundations of our predecessors and continue to push the boundaries of language education.

Notwithstanding such, is there one that can be considered THE best Approach or Method as of now? I am not sure if you do subscribe to the post-methods philosophy. To me, there is no single “best” language teaching approach or method in the contemporary age. Different approaches and methods have their strengths and weaknesses, and their effectiveness depends on various factors such as the learner’s goals, age, and cultural background, as well as the learning context, resources, and constraints.

Furthermore, contemporary language teaching emphasises a learner-centred approach that pays attention to learners’ needs, interests, and motivations, and promotes autonomous and collaborative learning. We recognise that learners bring their own prior knowledge, experiences, and resources to the learning process, and we aim to create a supportive and engaging learning environment that facilitates their language development.

Therefore, the so-called most effective language teaching approach or method to me is one that is adaptable and responsive to the learners’ needs and contexts, and that integrates a range of strategies, techniques, and resources to support their language learning. A post-methods approach that embraces eclecticism, flexibility, and creativity may be more suitable in this context, as it allows teachers to draw from multiple sources and tailor their teaching to the learners’ needs and interests.

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