What is the best method for teaching ESL?

We will take a roughly historical perspective as we look through the different methodologies for teaching English, from ancient past to current day.

The Classical Method

Named after the method used to teach the “classical languages” of ancient Greek and Latin and is often called grammar translation. There is a heavy focus on grammar such as verb conjugations and language rules.

The Direct Method

Also called the “natural approach” which is intended to copy the way we learn our native language naturally. As such, only the target language is used and the emphasis is on speaking and listening.

Audio-Lingual Method

As the name implies the two major components of this methodology are; audio (listen) and lingual (speak), so the method makes use of different types of drills to reinforce language structures.

Task Based Learning

The focus is on using the target language to solve a task, such as ‘buying a train ticket’. Successful completion of the task is more important than the specific language used. Successful communication is the keystone to this method.

Total Physical Response

Developed by James Asher, the theory behind the method is making use of the whole brain in language learning. This combines the left brain (language) and right brain movement (kinesthetic) to create a more powerful learning experience.

Engage Study Activate

A three phase teaching method making use of Engage (warm up), Study (lesson content), and Activate (use of target language in a realistic setting). The method was championed by Jeremy Harmer. This ESA straight arrow form can be varied using two variations called the “Boomerang” and the “Patchwork”.


Content and Language Integrated Learning, involves teaching academic studies to English language learners in English. Therefore teaching of science, mathematics, geography, history and art could all be taught to ELL’s through the medium of English.

Each method has its own positive and negative aspects and we should avoid trying to say which one is best. The reason for this is the best methodology is dependent on a number of factors, such as:

  • What age are the students?
  • What are they learning English for?
  • Is the course going to be examined?

We can illustrate these with some examples:

  • A group of 5 year olds are learning English for the first time. They are at the beginning stages so have learnt the alphabet and now are moving onto nouns and simple sentences.
  • Suggested methodology = Total Physical Response
  • A school-age group of teenagers at the elementary to intermediate levels learning general English.
  • Suggested methodology = Engage Study Activate
  • A group of workers from a hospital reception and administration department wanting to learn how to interact with customers in English.
  • Suggested methodology = Task based learning
  • A group of adults at a language center learning for the IELTS listening and speaking exams.
  • Suggested methodology = Audio-lingual method

As you can see each group has its own factors which would make one methodology more favorable than another. Recent research however does suggest that using a more eclectic approach (mixing and matching methods to particular activities) can be very useful.

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