The history of the Grammar-Translation Method: pros and cons

The History of the Method: The Grammar-Translation Method

The History of the Method: The Grammar-Translation Method

05.10.2023

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  • Cambridge English
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

I am sure that anyone has faced the Grammar-Translation Method at least once in their life.

Let’s recall: the teacher asks you to read and translate the text, pays much  attention to the grammar, and asks you to complete a lot of tasks to practice this grammar… 

Sounds familiar? Today we are going to open our series on the history of English teaching methods with the discussion of all the peculiarities of the Grammar-Translation Method, its pros and cons. 

So, fasten your seatbelts and let’s enjoy this exciting journey together!

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What is the Grammar-Translation Method?

Back in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, studying a foreign language was connected with learning Latin and Greek.

At that period, it was critical to concentrate on grammatical rules, syntactic structures, vocabulary memorization, and literary text translation.

On the other hand, students didn’t really practice oral communication. After all, Latin and Greek were definitely taught not for oral communication. 

Late in the nineteenth century, the Classical Method also became known as the Grammar Translation Method but didn’t really move forward from translating literary text from Language 2 to Language 1 through the application of the rules that were being thoroughly studied. 

Now, let’s discuss the principles of the method in more detail.

What are the key principles of the method?

Any method has some fundamentals that define its nature and the way this  method can be applied. Here are some principles of the Grammar-Translation Method:

  1. Understanding the literary language is more important than being able to speak. Therefore, reading and translating are the main priorities.
  2. The final aim is to teach students how to read and write. Thus, almost no space is left for speaking, listening, and pronunciation.
  3. The classroom is totally teacher-centered: the teacher gives instructions and corrects all the mistakes.
  4. The learning process is somehow eased with the constant help and reference to L1.
  5. Grammar is taught and practiced explicitly and usually outside the context.
  6. Students are constantly focused on the application of certain target language and grammar rules that are isolated from a more global context.
  7. All the rules must be memorized.

Why should you contextualize grammar?

What activities and techniques are used within the method?

Now, that  we have discussed the fundamental principles of the Grammar-Translation method, let’s look at the typical tasks that are assigned to the students who are taught according to this method:

Type of the taskCharacteristic
Translation of the chosen passageThe passage may be an extract from some literary text or a short story that  becomes a focus for several lessons. The teacher assists students in the acquisition of the vocabulary and grammar presented in the piece of text. Eventually, students may translate the piece either orally or in a written form showing how well they have mastered a certain grammar topic or target language.
Questions to check understanding of the textThis kind of activity is meant to check students’ understanding of the target language, and, therefore, the text. Questions may be divided into checking-the-gist questions, checking-the-detail questions, and post-reading questions where students are supposed to refer to their own experience that is somehow related to the text they have read. 
Providing the vocabulary itemStudents are supposed to look for the definitions, synonyms, antonyms of the items that have been presented in the text. 

Here are some more examples of possible tasks that are done within the Grammar-Translation Method:

Type of the taskCharacteristic
Grammar rules’ application Students are expected to complete a significant number of activities to master a certain grammar topic presented in the text. 
Fill-in-the-gaps tasksThese tasks may focus on the target language or grammar forms or structures. 
MemorizingThe teacher gives a list of the target language with the meanings of the words in L1. Students are supposed to learn this list by heart. In addition, students are expected to learn the grammar rules and be able to retell them to the teacher.
Making up the sentences Creating sentences or texts is treated as a form of practicing using certain grammar structures or target language.

More on using TBL in the classroom

What are the advantages of the method?

Professionals differentiate the following pros of the Grammar-Translation Method:

  1. This strategy is beneficial in a class with a big number of students.
  2. It might be useful in a mixed-ability classroom.
  3. Sometimes it may assist teachers in explaining the meaning of a word or sentence to students by simply translating them into their native tongue.
  4. Surely, students quickly grasp the concept with the help of the translation.
  5. This method makes it easier to teach elementary students who don’t possess  a great deal of knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar and need much more teacher’s assistance to compose the sentences. 

What are the disadvantages of the method?

What about the cons? Let’s see:

  1. This strategy eliminates the need for spoken work in the classroom. Only the teacher is allowed to talk.
  2. Students become extremely teacher-dependent.
  3. The primary focus remains on the mother tongue, with the target language playing a secondary role. 
  4. There is no space to practice speaking. 
  5. Students do not gain the ability to think in the target language. 
  6. It does not assist students in mastering  pronunciation.
  7. The emphasis is mostly on the grammar rules.
  8. Students eventually attempt to do everything through translation even if it’s impossible.

What are the dos and don'ts of ESL teaching?

What do researchers think about the Grammar-Translation Method today?

At this point, many researchers have criticized this technique, claiming that it only improves reading and writing abilities while ignoring conversational skills.

According to them, it also tends to make the class dull and monotonous since the students fall into the habit of translating each line word by word and do not improve their translation speed. 

This approach is more and more thought to be ineffective and time-consuming.

Furthermore, despite acquiring a new language's vocabulary, students are still as unable to speak as at the beginning of their studying. That is why, this method is thought to be outdated and isn’t applied to the fullest: only certain elements of it are still preserved and used.

FAQ

What is the final goal of the method?

The final aim of the Grammar-Translation Method is to teach students how to read authentic texts. To do that students undergo extensive exposure to English grammar rules and target vocabulary. 

How do students and teachers interact with each other?

The classroom is built on a pretty strict hierarchy: there is authority of the teacher and the students who are supposed to follow all the instructions. There is no or almost no communication between the students as only communication with the teacher is allowed.

More on changing hierarchy

What areas of the language are the most important?

The areas that are paid the most attention to are grammar and reading. Translation from L2 to L1 and vice versa is also in focus.

What areas of the language are the least important?

Unfortunately, the area that totally lacks practice during the application of the Grammar-Translation method is speaking. 

There is simply no space to develop students’ speaking abilities, and,  therefore, practice the obtained knowledge of the target language and grammar in the speech. 

What is considered to be a success?

Making no or a small number of grammatical errors is considered to be a success. However, if the mistakes are made, the right to correct them by interrupting or interfering belongs almost solely to the teacher.

Conclusion

As we can see, there are both pros and cons to  the method. Although  the Grammar-Translation Method may seem outdated and somehow limited for both students’ progress and teachers’ abilities, it  stays one of the most used all over the world despite its limited effectiveness

If you want to stay up-to-date  with the newest teaching methods, though, make sure to keep in touch with our professional community and don’t miss all the updates! 

The Grammar-Translation Method is considered to be one of the most effective for now.

Students have a lot of speaking practice when the Grammar-Translation Method is applied.

Understanding literary language is more important than teaching speaking for the Grammar-Translation Method followers.

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko

    Author

    Teacher of General English & IELTS

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