The Direct Method

Next in line along our chronological methods and approaches journey…


History & Development

  • In the middle of the 19th century, people began to question the Grammar Translation method of language teaching. Within Europe, people felt, there was more a need for oral communication skills.
  • Individual specialists (e.g. Marcel, Gouin) tried to introduce new ways of teaching languages, but they often lacked the means for wider dissemination and implementation of their ideas, as the profession of language teaching was not yet sufficiently organised.
  • From about the 1880s onwards, the Reform Movement witnessed practical linguists giving reformist ideas more credibility (e.g. Henry Sweet, Paul Passy). This was the beginning of applied linguistics.
  • In general, these new ideas focused on the fact that speech (and not the written word) should be seen as the primary form of language. At this time, phonetics also began to find recognition as a discipline, and the International Phonetics Association was founded.
  • Sweet, for example, promoted the idea that methodological principles should be based on the results from scientific studies of language and psychology.
  • Saveur (1860s) put forward the Natural Method’, which was based on how a child learns its mother tongue. These ‘natural language’ principles became known as the Direct Method (also known as the Berlitz methods, and still used today in these private language schools).


  • The foreign language is the medium of instruction, and instead of explaining grammar, teachers encourage direct and spontaneous use of the foreign language, from which the learners can inductively learn the rules of grammar.
  • It is everyday vocabulary and phrases that are taught (not literature), and the skills of speaking and listening comprehension are seen as the most important. Concrete vocabulary items are taught using demonstration and realia, and abstract items through associations of ideas.
  • Oral communication skills are built up through sequences of questions and answers with the teacher. New teaching points are also initially introduced orally, with an emphasis placed on correct pronunciation.. Due to this oral emphasis, the method is best suited to smaller classes, where each learner will receive intense practice.


  • The method is most successful in small classes, with native-speaker teachers, but this is hard to implement in schools. The Coleman Report (1966), for example, highlighted that the focus on oral skills was impractical within the limited timetables of American schools, and recommended a shift to focusing on reading skills – a move that was accepted and remained the norm there until WWII.
  • The method is often criticised for overemphasising the similarities between natural L1 acquisition and classroom L2 learning. Some linguists claim that the method has n

    o real basis in applied linguistics theory, and is merely the “product of enlightened amateurism.”

  • Learners’ success is dependent on the teacher’s skill at using the method, and not all non-native speaker teachers are always proficient enough in L2 to adhere to all of the method’s principles.  Moreover, s

    trict adherence to all of the principles means that teachers sometimes need a very long explanation to teach just for one word, where translation into the learners’ L1 would be more efficient.

  • Nonetheless, the Direct Method was an innovation in foreign language teaching methodology, moving away from Grammar Translation for the first time. It also provides learners with plenty of L2 input and practice in the vital skill of oral communication.


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