The History of the Direct Method in teaching English

The History of the Method: The Direct Method

The History of the Method: The Direct Method

24.10.2023

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  • Cambridge English
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

We continue our “History of the Method” series. Here, we are moving throughout history and analyzing how teaching approaches have been  changing, why and to what extent we can  use them in our classrooms nowadays. 

Today, let's  proceed to the Direct Method, an approach that came after the Grammar-Translation method.

More about Grammar-Translation Method

What is the direct method?

A technique that addressed the issues with the Grammar-Translation method – at the time, the most popular method for teaching languages – arose around the end of the 19th century.

This approach was created as an alternative to the Grammar-Translation method. When the shortcomings of the Grammar-Translation technique became clear, the Direct Method specifically targeted those skills that were barely touched by the method that came before it.

The Direct Approach, commonly referred to as “the natural method,” bases the context and strategies for second language acquisition on the first language acquisition process. This change is built upon the notion that we didn't really practice translation and grammatical rules while studying  our native language.

That being said, how did we learn our first language? This is something the direct method is deeply concerned with.

What are the aims of the direct method?

The major goal is to educate students on how to communicate in a foreign language.

This is accomplished by placing the learner in a “natural” learning setting, which reproduces the conditions in which native speakers learn a language. 

The Direct Method is excellent for boosting students’ motivation and, as a result, for  material retention because of the immersive learning environment.

What is the role of the teacher in the direct method?

In comparison to the Grammar-Translation method, students are much less passive

Yes, the role of the teacher is still powerful, but they are likely to engage more with the students and treat them as partners in the learning process.

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What are the key characteristics of the direct method?

Sure, the Direct Method has its own principles and rules that need  to be followed by anyone who is eager to try this approach in their own ESL classroom:

  1. The purpose of language learning is communication. So, students learn how to ask and answer questions and apply them in their everyday communication. Therefore, every lesson contains some speaking element in order for students to practice all the target vocabulary they have learned in a certain context. 
  2. This is when realia and generally anything that can be beneficial for language learning are implemented into the lessons. The teacher  gets access to a wider range of materials and more space for creativity and experimentation with the material presentation.
  3. Reading various texts that contain target language is important. At the same time, reading skills will be properly developed through the speaking practice, which is the priority. The texts may refer students to various topics and cultural concepts, as lessons aren’t really structured around various linguistic phenomena but rather interesting and useful topics.

What is more, theorists of the Direct Method put a great emphasis on the following principles as well:

  1. Pronunciation is an important part that is paid attention to from the beginners’ levels.
  2. Grammar is not taught explicitly. The inductive approach is much more preferable. 
  3. Writing tasks are also completed from the beginning of the language learning  process.
  4. Mistakes aren’t corrected by the teacher. Instead of long and detailed explanations of the teacher, students are asked to perform self-correction or choose the correct option from the given sentences. This approach is considered to be much more effective than explicit correction, which doesn’t require students to be focused and engaged.
  5. Translation is not used at all. The main goal is to create an immersive environment and develop students’ skills of thinking in a  foreign language rather than constantly looking for analogies with their mother tongue.

How effective is the direct method?

The Direct Method is great if the main priority is to learn how to handle  common everyday situations. 

With such a focus on common phrases and topics, it doesn’t take too much time for your students to actually be able to speak on these topics using the target vocabulary. 

Generally, the Direct Method supports the “natural” process of learning a language, encourages students to think in the target language as they learn it, and has a rapid positive impact on pronunciation. 

Therefore, it may be rather effective for anyone whose goal is to have a chit-chat with colleagues, support conversations with friends and acquaintances, and generally perform various everyday tasks with ease.

Want to know more about Post-Method?

What are the pros and cons of the direct method?

ProsCons
Students get a chance to try using the language in practice, not only in theory.Getting grammar rules sometimes becomes challenging due to the fully inductive explanation, especially if students come from backgrounds  where they were previously taught with the help of the Grammar-Translation Method.
A great deal of attention goes to the development of speaking skills.Students are not that proficient in writing because teachers don’t usually have enough opportunities to focus on it properly.
There is no space for translation. Therefore, students become less dependent on their native language while studying their second language.There may be some pronunciation mistakes as these rules are not taught explicitly but rather through the reading practice.

What are the teaching techniques of the direct method?

Finally, you may ask: “What types of activities are the most popular within the Direct Method?”

Here are some ideas of the tasks that  your students are likely to deal with

Reading out loud

Students read the assigned passage in turns, role-play the dialogues through reading. Afterwards, the teacher takes time explaining important things (vocabulary, functional language) from the passage that has been read.

QA tasks

The aim of this activity is to practice the target language from the reading task. Both questions and answers have to be composed using this target language. 

Moreover, students are also supposed to care about the correct grammar structures and pronunciation

After all, after successful completion of such a task, students basically get ready-to-go phrases that they can use straight away in the appropriate situation.

Tips to teach functional language

Self-correction activities

As we have already mentioned, self-correction is thought to be much more effective than simple correction made by a teacher. 

Therefore, students are going to deal with a lot of self-correction activities based on either some typical mistakes or those that we made during the speaking task, for example. 

Dictation

The teacher  is supposed to read the text passage clearly and slowly, using proper pronunciation, intonation and pausing. 

Meanwhile, students should listen to the teacher carefully and write down everything they hear in the best way possible. 

Within the Direct Method, this task is thought to be effective on many levels: students may practice spelling, listening as well as get to work with a nicely composed authentic piece of writing.

Fill-in-the gaps tasks

We have already seen this type of task when we were talking about the Grammar-Translation Method. But this time students are not taught  the grammar explicitly and therefore have to see the patterns and fill in the gaps correctly.

Conclusion

As we can see, there are two sides of one coin. 

On the one hand, there is a clear shift to the modern methodological approaches and even attempts to deal with the problem of inability to speak that the Grammar-Translation Method couldn’t solve. 

On the other hand, we definitely may call some aspects of the Direct Method archaic (reading out loud, dictations) from the todays’ perspective. 

Still, we can not deny that it seems to be a great progress that happened thanks to the Direct Method and some of its principles we actively use even now. If you want to learn more tips on the latest teaching methods, don’t forget to join our community of professionals.

The Direct Method is a very effective way of teaching with almost no cons.

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko

    Author

    Teacher of General English & IELTS

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