This post is from the Teachers' Guide of frenchteacher.net where you'll find plenty of other guides for MFL teachers.
The oral-situational approach
Originating in the 1920s and 1930s when linguists such as Harold
Palmer and A.S Hornby took the direct method and from it developed a
more scientific approach for teaching languages through an oral
approach. It was well-established in Britain by the 1950s, although many
teachers were still relying mainly on grammar-translation well beyond
then. With the oral approach vocabulary is limited and based on
frequency counts from the language being studied. Grammar is also
selected and graded by difficulty and presented and practised
principally through question and answer. It remains at the core of many
courses which are structured primarily on the basis of structural
complexity, beginning with the simplest and working through to the most
In this approach, which became by the 1960s closely related to the
situational approach (language presented in the context of real life
situations, thus making it seem more relevant to learners), language is
normally presented orally first, exploiting repetition, drilling and
question-answer, then reinforced with reading and writing tasks. What
results is a form of artificial classroom communication. Course books
from this period made greater use of pictures as a basis for
Grammatical rules and linguistic competence are induced through
practice and with the aid of explanation. Nearly all teaching is done in
the target language. Critics would say that this approach, whilst
stressing the targte language, does not give sufficient emphasis to
genuine communication so remains rather unmotivating.
The audio-lingual approach
Audiolingualism , a term first coined in 1964, took elements of the
US army approach of the second world war, the post war oral approach
emphasising drilling of grammatical structures and the insights of
behaviourist learning theory. Dialogues and drills form the basis of
this essentially oral method, so similarities with the British oral
approach are apparent. Correct pronunciation, accuracy and mastery of
structural patterns are stressed. Tape recordings and illustrations are
used to support oral practice. A whole range of drilling types exist:
repetition, replacement of one word by another, gap-filling, sentence
transformation and so on. These practice techniques are commonplace
The emphasis is on acquisition through practice rather than analysis,
although this may come after practice. Real communication takes a
relatively small role, even less than with the Oral Approach. The
linguistic theory underlying the method is that learning occurs through
habit and repetition. The approach was well-suited to emerging
technologies such as the language laboratory.
Critics would say that the approach was dull and repetitive, undervaluing real communication and the role of analysis.
The communicative approach
From the 1970s this was a reaction against the oral-situational and
audio-lingual approaches which, with their stress on grammatical
structure, neglected the functional and communicative value of language.
In its weaker form it is not unlike the Oral Approach, but offers
greater opportunities for genuine communication (information gaps, pair
work, problem-solving games etc). In its stronger from it abandons
grammatical structure and relies on the idea that language will be
picked up just by communication. In this sense it sounds rather like a
Course books reflecting this approach will stress the functions of
language (e.g. apologising, persuading, arguing, negotiating) at the
expense of detailed grammatical practice or analysis. This approach maybe better suited to learners in a bilingual rather than school setting.
Critics would say that in some forms the communicative approach is too transactional and becomes glorified phrase book learning. They might also argue that the lack of focus on grammar and analysis is confusing to students.
In practice, most language teachers use a communicative approach in its most general sense, supported by explicit grammar teaching.
The natural/comprehensible input approach
Popular in the USA, advocated for many years by Stephen Krashen, this approach is based on the notion that the
second language is acquired very much like one’s native tongue. What is
required for progress is “comprehensible input”. If learners hear or
read language they can understand, nature will take its course and
competence will increase. By this approach it is even argued that focus
on grammar and accuracy could hinder progress since it would be time
taken away from the main goal of providing input. Focus on form, it is
argued, can increase one's ability to monitor accuracy but will not aid acquisition.
The main focus with this approach would be on listening and reading
for meaning, with relatively less emphasis on pattern practice and
grammatical accuracy. AIMLANG and TPRS conform loosely to this approach and have many supporters, especially in North America.
This natural approach is not unlike the Direct Method as espoused at the turn
of the twentieth century. In practice it is likely that teachers using a
natural, “comprehension” approach have much in common with those who
use a communicative or oral approach.
This was the approach used in most schools up to the 1950s and
beyond. It is based on no linguistic theory, but evolved from approaches
used in the teaching of Latin. The second language is viewed as a
system to be gradually mastered, from the simple to the complex, by
analysis and translation.
Similarities and differences between the first and second language
are stressed. The written language is prioritised and there is little or
no emphasis on speaking and listening.
The aim is to build up a strong grammatical and reading knowledge of
the second language. There is little attempt to get learners to
internalise structures for oral use. It is approach which some learners
find satisfying and used in small doses it may supplement other methods,
especially if the emphasis needs to be on accuracy. Students who learned by this approach often report that they are unable to cope with spoken language.
The twentieth century saw rapid developments in linguistic and
learning theory. Each new approach to second language reflected the
thinking of the time. No one method is best. There is no panacea method.
Learners have varying strengths and preferences, settings vary (young
pupil, older pupil, adult learner, business person, overseas student).
Today, in most settings, it is likely that an eclectic approach will
be used, with the best elements of all the above methods. At the very
least we safely say that for progress to be made a good deal of the
target language needs to be heard, read and used. Focus on structure and
accuracy usually assists progress and students like to have an
understanding of how the language works.
Approaches and methods in Language Teaching. Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers, Cambridge, 2001 (second edition)