The Direct Method or Natural Way: Background and Characteristics

by Baninder Goomer

During the 1850ís to 1900, Europe experienced a trend away from the grammar-translation method, based on the notion that it was not achieving the desired results. Reformers were responding to a need for better language teaching methods in a time of industrial expansion and international trade and travel. The resulting reforms went under a variety of names such as the natural method and the phonetic method, but ultimately all were categorized under the name the "Direct Method". In more recent times the Direct Method, which almost disappeared as a distinct method during the early 1930ís, has become a tool for aiding the beginning stages of teaching a language rather than for advanced language learners (Stern, 1983).


The basic premise of the Direct Method of teaching a language is that the studentsí native language should be excluded from the classroom environment, and that there be provided a complete immersion in the target language. Essentially the processes of learning the new language should almost mimic the progression of a child learning their primary language. Specifically the method promotes the use of introducing vocabulary as if the student has no previous knowledge of what it might be called even in his or her native language. The ultimate goal is to get the student to "think" in the new language.


The direct method denies the use of translation for the acquisition of the new language, and assumes that grammar will be learned by virtue of the context and pattern in communication. The grammar is not taught, per se, but instead the student is "led" to discover the patterns of grammar through carefully chosen illustrations (Diller, 1971). Also the emphasis is not placed on correction of a studentís grammar, word order or on drills but instead it is placed on active learning. Often the writing and reading aspect of learning is considered secondary, and textbooks are not necessarily deemed necessary except as a resource outside of the classroom.


Lessons follow a progression, and typically the student learns about 30 new words per lesson. In the first stages of the direct method or Preproduction, words are often taught using the Total Physical Response Method and there is special emphasis on listening comprehension. The following stages include yes and no questions and answers as part of Early production, understanding and phrases as part of Speech emergence, and finally discussions as part of Intermediate fluency (Freeman and Freeman, 1992).


There are a few significant problems with this method of teaching. The first requires the teacher to have an excellent command of the target language and also will power, in order not to revert to his or her other language out of habit or if they are stuck. This makes the method better suited for native speakers of the target language to be teaching using this method. The second major problem requires the teacher to be conscious of the difficulty of keeping the studentsí attention. It can be very easy for a student to "switch off", if they are not understand anything, especially if they are not taking the course on a volunteer basis. It would seem that this method lends itself towards a young audience and maybe be considered condescending for adults. Contrastingly, it can be a fun and humorous experience trying to communicate with another who has no knowledge of the language. It can also humanize the element of learning, and may seem more relevant to everyday life as opposed to learning through drills. Lastly, exclusive use of the foreign language gives a maximum amount of practice, thinking and communicating in the target language