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Methods of Teaching English as a Second Language

written by: Louanne Piccolo • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 2/8/2012

Methods of teaching English have changed and developed over the thousands of years that people have been learning languages. More recently, there have been four main approaches to teaching English as a second language, some very popular and effective, while others are no longer widely used.

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    The Grammar-Translation Method

    This method was the most common way of learning languages for centuries and is still used in many situations and countries. The Grammar-Translation method of teaching English as a second language focuses mostly on teaching students about the language but not how to use it practically. Students may have a vast knowledge of grammatical rules but are never provided with opportunities to put their knowledge into practice through discussion, conversation, activities or role-playing.

    The fact that the Grammar-Translation method of teaching is based on grammatical analysis to understand the construction of English as a foreign language means that it is not a "natural" method of learning a language. Children do not need to learn the rules of their native language, they assimilate the rules through using and hearing the language.

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    The Audio-Lingual Method

    This method to teaching English as a second language relies heavily on the assumption that learning is a result of habit formation through conditioning. Conditioning usually takes the form of long, repetitive drilling and is considered boring by most students. Drilling is not real, nor is it realistic language that speakers use in everyday life. However, it is an effective tool, used sparingly, for beginners to learn vocabulary.

    This method went rapidly out of fashion in the language learning circles because learning to speak a foreign language is far more subtle and complex than forming habits.

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    The Task-based Method

    The emphasis of this method is on language-based tasks rather than on the language itself. Teachers who use this method focus on giving tasks to be completed to students. During the task, problems and errors often become evident and once the task is finished teachers then discuss the error and explain why it was wrong, teach the necessary rules and set another task for their students.

    An example of a lesson using the task-based method of language learning:

    • The task is for students to ask for and give information about train and bus timetables
    • Students are given the timetables, put into pairs and perform their task
    • The teacher walks around and listens to students while jotting down any language problems
    • Once the task is completed, the teacher goes through the errors with students and explains how to correct them
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    The Communicative Language Teaching Method

    The CLT method differs radically from the other, older approaches to teaching English as a second language that have tended to dominate language teaching over the years. It has two main strands to it:

    1. All language used involves language functions such as inviting, agreeing, disagreeing etc. and must be used appropriately
    2. Students are given enough exposure to language and opportunities to use the language for language learning to take place

    The idea behind this method is that people learn languages in order to communicate and not to simply know the rules of grammar without being able to use them practically. Adults and children learning English are given the chance to use real language in a classroom setting through role-playing, language games, discussions, technology-based ESL activities and other activities.