The Direct Method
[coverattach=1]Towards the end of the late 1800s, a revolution in language teaching philosophy took place that is seen by many as the dawn of modern foreign language teaching. Teachers, frustrated by the limits of the Grammar Translation Method in terms of its inability to create communicative competence in students, began to experiment with new ways of teaching language. Basically, teachers began attempting to teach foreign languages in a way that was more similar to first language acquisition. It incorporated techniques designed to address all the areas that the Grammar Translation did not - namely oral communication, more spontaneous use of the language, and developing the ability to think in the target language. Perhaps in an almost reflexive action, the method also moved as far away as possible from various techniques typical of the Grammar Translation Method - for instance using L1 as the language of instruction, memorizing grammatical rules and lots of translation between L1 and the target language.
The appearance of the "Direct Method" thus coincided with a new school of thinking that dictated that all foreign language teaching should occur in the target language only, with no translation and an emphasis on linking meaning to the language being learned. The method became very popular during the first quarter of the 20th century, especially in private language schools in Europe where highly motivated students could study new languages and not need to travel far in order to try them out and apply them communicatively. One of the most famous advocates of the Direct Method was the German Charles Berlitz, whose schools and Berlitz Method are now world-renowned.
Still, the Direct Method was not without its problems. As Brown (1994:56) points out, "(it) did not take well in public education where the constraints of budget, classroom size, time, and teacher background made such a method difficult to use." By the late 1920s, the method was starting to go into decline and there was even a return to the Grammar Translation Method, which guaranteed more in the way of scholastic language learning orientated around reading and grammar skills. But the Direct Method continues to enjoy a popular following in private language school circles, and it was one of the foundations upon which the well-known "Audiolingual Method" expanded from starting half way through the 20th century.
The basic premise of the Direct Method is that students will learn to communicate in the target language, partly by learning how to think in that language and by not involving L1 in the language learning process whatsoever. Objectives include teaching the students how to use the language spontaneously and orally, linking meaning with the target language through the use of realia, pictures or pantomime (Larsen-Freeman 1986:24). There is to be a direct connection between concepts and the language to be learned.
Richards and Rodgers (1986:9-10) summarize the key features of the Direct Method thus:
(1) Classroom instruction is conducted exclusively in the target language.
(2) Only everyday vocabulary and sentences are taught.
(3) Oral communication skills are built up in a carefully traded progression organized around
question-and-answer exchanges between teachers and students in small, intensive classes.
(4) Grammar is taught inductively.
(5) New teaching points are taught through modeling and practice.
(6) Concrete vocabulary is taught through demonstration, objects, and pictures; abstract vocabulary
is taught by association of ideas.
(7) Both speech and listening comprehension are taught.
(8) Correct pronunciation and grammar are emphasized.
Diane Larsen-Freeman, in her book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (1986:26-27) provides expanded descriptions of some common/typical techniques closely associated with the Direct Method. The listing here is in summary form only.
(1) Reading Aloud
(Reading sections of passages, plays or dialogs out loud)
(2) Question and Answer Exercise
(Asking questions in the target language and having students answer in full sentences)
(3) Student Self-Correction
(Teacher facilitates opportunities for students to self correct using follow-up questions, tone, etc)
(4) Conversation Practice
(Teacher asks students and students ask students questions using the target language)
(5) Fill-in-the-blank Exercise
(Items use target language only and inductive rather than explicit grammar rules)
(Teacher reads passage aloud various amount of times at various tempos, students writing down
what they hear)
(7) Paragraph Writing
(Students write paragraphs in their own words using the target language and various models)
The Direct Method is undoubtedly a highly effective method in terms of creating language learners who are very competent in terms of using the target language communicatively. However, as pointed out above, it requires small class sizes, motivated learners and talented teachers in order to succeed really well. It is also an unfortunate fact of life that students of foreign languages these days need more than just the ability to communicate confidently - they need to be able to demonstrate grammatical accuracy and good reading skills in order to succeed in both national and international language testing systems. It becomes something of an issue in countries where English language learning is primarily EFL-based (that is, English as a Foreign Language) and there is a distinct shortage of both (1) the opportunity to apply the language communicatively in real-life situations outside the actual classroom, and (2) teachers who have the required level of native or native-like ability in the target language and the creativity to provide realistic examples to illustrate what elements of the language actually mean.
Some of the teachers who go on to practice this kind of methodology tend to be native speakers who travel to foreign countries where thay have no ability in the local language. In many cases they are not even aware they are following what is known as the "Direct Method" - they are trying to make the best out of a difficult classroom situation where creativity and constant (careful) use of the target language are required to make up for teachers' shortcomings elsewhere, whether that be a lack of ability in the students' mother language or a lack of knowledge about various pedagogic approaches to language teaching.
In an interesting development, it is not at all uncommon to find a blend of teaching techniques consisting of partner teachers - one a native speaker with no knowledge of the local language, culture or educational system, the other a local teacher who speaks English as a second or foreign language. The native speaker is often referred to as the "conversation teacher", and represents the "global communication" aspect of a marketing strategy so important for private language institutes. The local teacher may be known as the "grammar and translation" half of the overall package, the teacher who can use the students' mother language to control their behavior, put them at ease and explain how the grammar works. In essence, this kind of teaching teamwork is an often unconscious effort to combine the Direct Method with the Grammar Translation Method in an attempt to provide a (basically misguided) "holistic" approach to teaching the language - the basic premise being that the shortfallings of one are covered by the other and vice-versa. There are even institutes that consider themselves "advanced" because they employ a native-speaking teacher who has a "Direct Method" style approach in combination with a local teacher who teaches according to a blend of the Grammar Translation Method and the Audiolingual Method (that is, the local teacher sometimes or often uses L1 to explain the grammar, but for the rest of the time applies the kind of rote-learning and over-learning of forms typical of the Audiolingual Method).
How well does such a combination of styles work for the average language learner? In my opinion, the two styles undermine rather than complement each other, and inject both unnecessary extra confusion into the language learning process as well as what could be termed "stereo-typical roles" for teachers based purely on nationality.
I will admit that I myself have been through what I call the "Direct Method for Initial Classroom Survival" phase, basically because I didn't know better and felt that with it I was achieving some measure of tangible success as a teacher of "communicative English". Having (hopefully!) reached a somewhat more enlightened outlook through both experience and research, I realized that there is a fundamental flaw to the Direct Approach that has nothing to do with ensuring the students achieve a sufficient level of proficiency in English structure and reading. Like many other "modern" language teaching methods that preceded the "communicative approach", the Direct Method contains nothing in its essential theory and principles that deals with the learners themselves - cognitive and affective principles orientated around stepping into the boots of the students and looking out at the strange and confusing landscape of the foreign language they are asking (or being asked) to learn.
The Direct Method was an important turning point in the history of foreign language teaching, and represented a step away from the Grammar Translation Method that was progressive and heading in the right direction. I would encourage teachers to view the method in exactly the same way - not a bad way to teach but a long way short of the big picture modern language teaching methodology is attempting to achieve.