Recently I have been wondering what methods and techniques for learning and teaching foreign languages exist. My quest is to re-evaluate my views on foreign language acquisition, and maybe make some changes to my own approach.

To keep this question from getting too broad though, for now I want to focus exclusively on foreign language teaching methods (my assumption being that the majority of research has been done in this field, but I might be wrong on that).

So what are the main foreign language teaching methods - whether it be those that have been tried in the past or those that are still in use?

I would very much appreciate some short descriptions of the various methods and if possible also a link to some on-line source on this subject.

NOTE: After some criticism in the comments this question has been completely re-written to hopefully better fit the scope and criteria of Language Learning StackExchange. The original title was: "What are the main points of contention as far as methods and techniques of language learning are concerned?"

  • What do you mean by "the two positions"? There are more than two language learning methods, many teaching methods and possibly dozens of techniques. See e.g. this question about the direct method and this short history of ESL theories and methods. Moreover, the exclusion of books, scholarly articles and offline resources partially conflicts with your request for "quality articles".
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 17, 2016 at 11:59
  • @ChristopheStrobbe With positions I meant the two opposite extremes of each of the points of contention. I excluded books, because I want me and other people to be able to get some quality information about the opposing viewpoints without buying books. With 'scholarly studies' (not articles) I meant research, and I excluded that because I didn't want links 'proving' one side or the other, but links with general information about one or the other point of view. [...]
    – J.Past
    Aug 17, 2016 at 13:37
  • [...] If one of the readers is interested in one of the subjects, he can still dig in and check out the research, buy books or ask a specific question on LLStackExchange. So what I'm looking for is a collection of links: a link for a proponent of 'a silent period' and a link for an opponent (links to Antimoon and Fluent in 3 Months?). Same for of Anki (or other SRS), the same for the direct method etc.
    – J.Past
    Aug 17, 2016 at 13:39
  • 1
    Can we not make this a debate question but rather both "sides" present themselves in a single answer? Aug 17, 2016 at 14:44
  • I didn't vote this down but would like to point out that with your clarifications the question has become even wider. It appears that you are asking for opposite positions on a whole range of methods and techniques: silent period or not, spaced repetition or not, direct method or not. Some of the topics have already been covered. For the other ones, it may be better to create separate questions.
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 17, 2016 at 15:43

1 Answer 1


There are lots of possible methods, including the ones presented by moramodules (visit the site for more information):

  • The Grammar-Translation Approach: This approach actually uses mainly the learner's native language rather than the target language. Grammar is of immense importance, which is seen as elaborate explanations of grammar are readily available. Reading of difficult texts is usually done early in the learning process and the contents of text are primarily used for grammatical analysis. Pronunciation is of little importance and translations between the languages are the common exercises.

This approach was historically used in teaching Greek and Latin. The approach was generalized to teaching modern languages.

Classes are taught in the students' mother tongue, with little active use of the target language. Vocabulary is taught in the form of isolated word lists. Elaborate explanations of grammar are always provided. Grammar instruction provides the rules for putting words together; instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words. Reading of difficult texts is begun early in the course of study. Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis. Often the only drills are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue, and vice versa. Little or no attention is given to pronunciation.

  • The Direct Approach (or Method): This method uses only, and only the target language. The native language is never used within this learning method. Culture plays a significant role in this method, allowing the learner to also know some of the culture related to the target language. Culture and grammar are taught inductively. Common exercises include answering questions based on the text, all in the target language. Texts are often not analyzed grammatically.

This approach was developed initially as a reaction to the grammar-translation approach in an attempt to integrate more use of the target language in instruction.

Lessons begin with a dialogue using a modern conversational style in the target language. Material is first presented orally with actions or pictures. The mother tongue is NEVER, NEVER used. There is no translation. The preferred type of exercise is a series of questions in the target language based on the dialogue or an anecdotal narrative. Questions are answered in the target language. Grammar is taught inductively--rules are generalized from the practice and experience with the target language. Verbs are used first and systematically conjugated only much later after some oral mastery of the target language. Advanced students read literature for comprehension and pleasure. Literary texts are not analyzed grammatically. The culture associated with the target language is also taught inductively. Culture is considered an important aspect of learning the language.

  • The Reading Approach: The main and foremost priority of this approach is the studying of the target languages, followed by reading ability and current/historical knowledge of the country/countries in which the language is spoken. Grammar is only learned where the reading fluency of the language is improved. Pronunciation and conversational skills have very little priority in this approach. Vocabulary is expanded rapidly as vocabulary has a higher level of importance than grammar.

This approach is selected for practical and academic reasons. For specific uses of the language in graduate or scientific studies. The approach is for people who do not travel abroad for whom reading is the one usable skill in a foreign language.

The priority in studying the target language is first, reading ability and second, current and/or historical knowledge of the country where the target language is spoken. Only the grammar necessary for reading comprehension and fluency is taught. Minimal attention is paid to pronunciation or gaining conversational skills in the target language. From the beginning, a great amount of reading is done in L2, both in and out of class. The vocabulary of the early reading passages and texts is strictly controlled for difficulty. Vocabulary is expanded as quickly as possible, since the acquisition of vocabulary is considered more important that grammatical skill. Translation reappears in this approach as a respectable classroom procedure related to comprehension of the written text.

  • The Audiolingual Method: New information is presented as dialogue. The learner is forced to depend on mimicry, memorization of set phrases, and over-learning to be able to follow the principle of this method, which is habit formation. Grammar is given little attention and is taught inductively. The usage of laboratories, tapes, and visual aids are used greatly throughout this learning process. Usage of the mother tongue is often discouraged. Native-like pronunciation is given immense attention.

This method is based on the principles of behavior psychology. It adapted many of the principles and procedures of the Direct Method, in part as a reaction to the lack of speaking skills of the Reading Approach.

New material is presented in the form of a dialogue. Based on the principle that language learning is habit formation, the method fosters dependence on mimicry, memorization of set phrases and over-learning. Structures are sequenced and taught one at a time. Structural patterns are taught using repetitive drills. Little or no grammatical explanations are provided; grammar is taught inductively. Skills are sequenced: Listening, speaking, reading and writing are developed in order. Vocabulary is strictly limited and learned in context. Teaching points are determined by contrastive analysis between L1 and L2. There is abundant use of language laboratories, tapes and visual aids. There is an extended pre-reading period at the beginning of the course. Great importance is given to precise native-like pronunciation. Use of the mother tongue by the teacher is permitted, but discouraged among and by the students. Successful responses are reinforced; great care is taken to prevent learner errors. There is a tendency to focus on manipulation of the target language and to disregard content and meaning.

  • Community Language Learning: This is a methodology created by Charles Curran. The approach is not like most, the learner is considered more of a client and the techniques and patterns are based on the "client's" personal and language issues. There are language counselors which instead of being teachers, are trained in counseling skills. *Other important ideas are in the linked site.

The language-counseling relationship begins with the client's linguistic confusion and conflict. The aim of the language counselor's skill is first to communicate an empathy for the client's threatened inadequate state and to aid him linguistically. Then slowly the teacher-counselor strives to enable him to arrive at his own increasingly independent language adequacy. This process is furthered by the language counselor's ability to establish a warm, understanding, and accepting relationship, thus becoming an "other-language self" for the client. The process involves five stages of adaptation...

  • The Silent Way: (Please note that the description is hard to summarize so the only summary is literally the entire text from moramodules)

To avoid the use of the vernacular. To create simple linguistic situations that remain under the complete control of the teacher To pass on to the learners the responsibility for the utterances of the descriptions of the objects shown or the actions performed. To let the teacher concentrate on what the students say and how they are saying it, drawing their attention to the differences in pronunciation and the flow of words. To generate a serious game-like situation in which the rules are implicitly agreed upon by giving meaning to the gestures of the teacher and his mime. To permit almost from the start a switch from the lone voice of the teacher using the foreign language to a number of voices using it. This introduces components of pitch, timbre and intensity that will constantly reduce the impact of one voice and hence reduce imitation and encourage personal production of one's own brand of the sounds.

To provide the support of perception and action to the intellectual guess of what the noises mean, thus bring in the arsenal of the usual criteria of experience already developed and automatic in one's use of the mother tongue. To provide a duration of spontaneous speech upon which the teacher and the students can work to obtain a similarity of melody to the one heard, thus providing melodic integrative schemata from the start.

  • The Communicative Approach:

Communicative competence is the progressive acquisition of the ability to use a language to achieve one's communicative purpose.

• Communicative competence involves the negotiation of meaning between two or more persons sharing the same symbolic system.

• Communicative competence applies to both spoken and written language.

• Communicative competence is context specific based on the situation, the role of the participants and the appropriate choices of register and style. For example: The variation of language used by persons in different jobs or professions can be either formal or informal. The use of jargon or slang may or may not be appropriate.

• Communicative competence represents a shift in focus from the grammatical to the communicative properties of the language; i.e. the functions of language and the process of discourse.

• Communicative competence requires the mastery of the production and comprehension of communicative acts or speech acts that are relevant to the needs of the L2 learner.

Characteristics of the Communicative Classroom

• The classroom is devoted primarily to activities that foster acquisition of L2. Learning activities involving practice and drill are assigned as homework.

• The instructor does not correct speech errors directly.

• Students are allowed to respond in the target language, their native language, or a mixture of the two.

• The focus of all learning and speaking activities is on the interchange of a message that the acquirer understands and wishes to transmit, i.e. meaningful communication.

• The students receive comprehensible input in a low-anxiety environment and are personally involved in class activities. Comprehensible input has the following major components:

  • a context
  • gestures and other body language cues
  • a message to be comprehended
  • a knowledge of the meaning of key lexical items in the utterance

Stages of language acquisition in the communicative approach

  1. Comprehension or pre-production
  • Total physical response
  • Answer with names--objects, students, pictures
  1. Early speech production
  • Yes-no questions
  • Either-or questions
  • Single/two-word answers
  • Open-ended questions
  • Open dialogs
  • Interviews
  1. Speech emerges
  • Games and recreational activities
  • Content activities
  • Humanistic-affective activities
  • Information-problem-solving activities
  • Functional-Notional Approach:

This method of language teaching is categorized along with others under the rubric of a communicative approach. The method stresses a means of organizing a language syllabus. The emphasis is on breaking down the global concept of language into units of analysis in terms of communicative situations in which they are used.

Notions are meaning elements that may be expressed through nouns, pronouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, adjectives or adverbs. The use of particular notions depends on three major factors: a. the functions b. the elements in the situation, and c. the topic being discussed.

A situation may affect variations of language such as the use of dialects, the formality or informality of the language and the mode of expression. Situation includes the following elements:

A. The persons taking part in the speech act

B. The place where the conversation occurs

C. The time the speech act is taking place

D. The topic or activity that is being discussed

Exponents are the language utterances or statements that stem from the function, the situation and the topic.

Code is the shared language of a community of speakers.

Code-switching is a change or switch in code during the speech act, which many theorists believe is purposeful behavior to convey bonding, language prestige or other elements of interpersonal relations between the speakers.

  • Total Physical Response:

James J. Asher defines the Total Physical Response (TPR) method as one that combines information and skills through the use of the kinesthetic sensory system. This combination of skills allows the student to assimilate information and skills at a rapid rate. As a result, this success leads to a high degree of motivation. The basic tenets are:

Understanding the spoken language before developing the skills of speaking. Imperatives are the main structures to transfer or communicate information. The student is not forced to speak, but is allowed an individual readiness period and allowed to spontaneously begin to speak when the student feels comfortable and confident in understanding and producing the utterances.


Step I The teacher says the commands as he himself performs the action.

Step 2 The teacher says the command as both the teacher and the students then perform the action.

Step 3 The teacher says the command but only students perform the action

Step 4 The teacher tells one student at a time to do commands

Step 5 The roles of teacher and student are reversed. Students give commands to teacher and to other students.

Step 6 The teacher and student allow for command expansion or produces new sentences.

  • The Natural Approach:

The Natural Approach and the Communicative Approach share a common theoretical and philosophical base.The Natural Approach to L2 teaching is based on the following hypotheses:

  1. The acquisition-learning distinction hypothesis

Adults can "get" a second language much as they learn their first language, through informal, implicit, subconscious learning. The conscious, explicit, formal linguistic knowledge of a language is a different, and often non-essential process.

  1. The natural order of acquisition hypothesis

L2 learners acquire forms in a predictable order. This order very closely parallels the acquisition of grammatical and syntactic structures in the first language.

  1. The monitor hypothesis

Fluency in L2 comes from the acquisition process. Learning produces a "monitoring" or editor of performance. The application of the monitor function requires time, focus on form and knowledge of the rule.

  1. The input hypothesis

Language is acquired through comprehensible input. If an L2 learner is at a certain stage in language acquisition and he/she understands something that includes a structure at the next stage, this helps him/her to acquire that structure. Thus, the i+1 concept, where i= the stage of acquisition.

  1. The affective hypothesis

People with certain personalities and certain motivations perform better in L2 acquisition. Learners with high self-esteem and high levels of self-confidence acquire L2 faster. Also, certain low-anxiety pleasant situations are more conducive to L2 acquisition.

  1. The filter hypothesis

There exists an affective filter or "mental block" that can prevent input from "getting in." Pedagogically, the more that is done to lower the filter, the more acquisition can take place. A low filter is achieved through low-anxiety, relaxation, non-defensiveness.

  1. The aptitude hypothesis

There is such a thing as a language learning aptitude. This aptitude can be measured and is highly correlated with general learning aptitude. However, aptitude relates more to learning while attitude relates more to acquisition.

  1. The first language hypothesis

The L2 learner will naturally substitute competence in L1 for competence in L2. Learners should not be forced to use the L1 to generate L2 performance. A silent period and insertion of L1 into L2 utterances should be expected and tolerated.

  1. The textuality hypothesis

The event-structures of experience are textual in nature and will be easier to produce, understand, and recall to the extent that discourse or text is motivated and structured episodically. Consequently, L2 teaching materials are more successful when they incorporate principles of good story writing along with sound linguistic analysis.

  1. The expectancy hypothesis

Discourse has a type of "cognitive momentum." The activation of correct expectancies will enhance the processing of textual structures. Consequently, L2 learners must be guided to develop the sort of native-speaker "intuitions" that make discourse predictable.

As mentioned by Laure, there is also the task-based approach and the action-based approach, both very popular and supported by CEFR (Common European Framework for Reference).

  • Task-based Approach: This is an approach which is based on tasks of course. Cambridge University defines a task as:

Long (1985: 89) frames his approach to task-based language teaching in terms of target tasks, arguing that a target task is:

a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. Thus examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, making a hotel reservation, writing a cheque, finding a street destination and helping someone across a road. In other words, by ‘task’ is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play and in between.

This is of course, the non-linguistic version. The more linguistic version of a (pedagogical) task states:

. . an activity or action which is carried out as the result of processing or understanding language (i.e. as a response). For example, drawing a map while listening to a tape, listening to an instruction and performing a command may be referred to as tasks. Tasks may or may not involve the production of language. A task usually requires the teacher to specify what will be regarded as successful completion of the task. The use of a variety of different kinds of tasks in language teaching is said to make language teaching more communicative . . . since it provides a purpose for a classroom activity which goes beyond the practice of language for its own sake.

The University of Alberta defines task-based approach is using authentic language to complete tasks such as making a phone call.

Task-based learning focuses on the use of authentic language through meaningful tasks such as visiting the doctor or a telephone call. This method encourages meaningful communication and is student-centred.

An action-based or action learning (AL) approach has been extensively used in businesses, public services, and business schools for organizational leadership programs as well as for personal and professional development (ZuberSkerritt, 2003). This approach connects learners to a real-world experience where a problem is discussed, reflected on, and acted upon by a group of individuals using “programmed knowledge” (Pedler, 2011). It emphasizes learners as the center of the learning process by having them work beyond their comfort zones in an unfamiliar environment on a genuine and difficult problem (Dilworth, 2010).

More about the last two approaches can be seen in this paper.

  • Is there a reason you've left out the Task-based Approach and the subsequent Action-Oriented Approach which has been prevalent in language teaching in Europe for the past 20 years? Here is a very good paper by a world famous researcher in language teaching, hope it shows you why it has been supported by the CEFR and has since spread so widely.
    – None
    Aug 19, 2016 at 11:34
  • @Laure I must have accidently skipped past it Aug 19, 2016 at 19:15
  • Just noticed the blog post Why is grammar-translation so persistent? (22 September 2016) about the grammar-translation method in Italy.
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 4, 2016 at 14:01
  • @AnthonyPham would you say the Task Based and Action Based approaches are subsets/implementations of Communicative Language Teaching?
    – user3871
    Jan 16, 2017 at 6:48

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