Throughout the history of education, especially teaching languages, there have been many approaches and teaching methods used. During the nineteenth century, the Direct Method (or Natural Method) was developed as an antithesis to the popular grammar-translation method, which many believed was failing in the goal of effective communication in a second language. 

The direct method focuses on full immersion in the classroom environment where not one word of the students’ native language is spoken. The focus is not on grammar but instead on learning through listening and speaking. When using the natural approach, we don’t focus on the rules, we allow for mistakes, and we aim for excellent oral communication with our target words and language. 

I particularly enjoy this approach to teaching because I am not limited to what language my students speak in their homes. I currently teach English in Mexico, and I am able to speak Spanish, so using other teaching methods is an option for me in my brick and mortar classroom. My online classroom is another story, however! My virtual students are from China, and I don’t know more than three words in their native tongue. The direct method is my only method for teaching them, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the results I have seen over the last several years of my China teaching endeavors. 

The basic principles of the direct method approach are:

  • Teach language inductively: In this method, we don’t explain the rules to the students; we let them figure it out for themselves. We challenge them and guide them to the correct use of the language, but we also force them to think through things as they learn. We can do this by showing them objects and even calling the objects by the wrong color, so they will figure out what the object is NOT as well as what it is.
  • Only use the target language: Our goal is to not have the students translating from their mother tongue but to learn instead to think in the foreign language. When a person learned their first language, there was no translation from another language; they had nothing to base it on. The direct method approach believes in trying to mimic first language acquisition. 
  • Oral communication is the main objective: The direct approach focuses on speaking far more than the importance of reading and writing. This practice is the complete opposite of the grammar-translation approach, where students learn all of the rules of a language but often cannot speak or communicate effectively in the second language. Using the direct method, we encourage our students to speak, even to make grammatical mistakes, so they can get their point across and put into practice what they are learning in their classrooms. 

Teaching styles used in the direct method approach are:

  • Showing or using multiple examples of a word or concept: There should be an overkill of props, images, or gestures used to make sure the point comes across for a student. The overuse is needed to ensure comprehension since there is no translation being used at all.
  • Props and TPR (total physical response): Visual cues are extremely important for a student learning with the direct method. The student needs to see the image or the action many times in order to associate the concept with the new word or language they are learning. 
  • Listening and repetition: Not only do the students need to see something to create an association, but they also need to hear something. They need to hear how the language is used, how it is pronounced, and how to incorporate it into their oral communication. 
  • Speaking: the students need to be able to practice the concepts of words they are learning. Once they have seen it, seen examples, heard it, and created an association of a word or concept in their mind, they will need to put it into practice with actually speaking and communicating. Give them ample opportunity to try to speak and praise them when they are correct. If you don’t understand, be patient and repeat the examples, TPR, images, etc.
  • Make sure to have a non-threatening environment: It is vital to create a safe space for the students to attempt to communicate using their newly acquired language. The students should receive rewards and praise when they effectively speak and gentle correction and repetition when needed due to errors. 

Watch as Teacher Lela explains the Direct Method of teaching English as a second language and view a few real, online class examples of the method in action.

Using the direct method approach has opened up a whole new group of students for me to teach due to my limited foreign language skills. I challenge you to try something new and even open yourself up to new opportunities by being willing to use the natural method of immersion teaching. How have you integrated the direct method into your classroom?

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