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With all of the different options available, it can be confusing for English language teachers to decide on which teaching methodology or approach to use in the classroom. It can even get even more confusing in trying to understand the difference between a method and an approach.

This article will unravel the complexity of this topic, giving an overview of important trends and their implications, both from an historical and pedagogical perspective.

What’s the difference between a method and an approach?

These two words – ‘method’ and ‘approach’ – are often confused with each other because of the similarity in their meanings. Both are instructional designs with principles and practices that guide the process of teaching and learning.

 Flexible vs Inflexible Methods of English Teaching

The difference is to be found in their levels of flexibility. A method is a way of teaching where there are prescribed objectives and guidelines, and the teacher has little or no leeway when it comes to implementation. An approach is a way of teaching whose principles can be applied in many different ways.


Grammar Translation

This is a traditional teaching style that originated in the late 19th century. Students analyse the grammatical rules of English and then practice translating discourse from their mother tongue into English and vice versa. To achieve this, students are expected to memorize long vocabulary lists and complex grammatical paradigms.

A usual approach with regard to a classroom activity would be to provide a student with an item of grammar, show how it is used in a text and then practice using the item through writing paragraphs, essays or summaries in the target language.

The method emphasizes accuracy over fluency. Learners develop reading and writing skills, with little opportunity to practice listening and speaking. This means that students learning English through the Grammar Translation method often have trouble communicating in the real world.


This way of teaching was originally called the Army Method because in World War II, it was used to teach soldiers to be orally proficient in the languages of the enemy.

This method was a reaction to what was seen as the failures of the Grammar Translation method, with the major differences being the prioritizing of speaking and listening over reading and writing, and the banning of the mother tongue in the classroom.

Audiolingualism drew on Skinner’s Behaviourism theory, very much in vogue at the time, that asserts that anything can be learned through conditioning. Correct answers by students receive praise, whereas students who supply incorrect answers get negative feedback.

Lesson materials focus on oral-pattern drills where teachers verbally present new structural patterns and learners are expected to repeat the teacher’s words with the same intonation and pronunciation. After class, students listen to tapes through headphones in language labs and follow the same process – the voice on the tape presents language that the learner orally repeats.

Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response (TPR) was developed by James Asher in the 1960s. It’s a method built around the coordination of speech and action where teachers give commands in the target language and students respond with physical movement.

Asher believed that students learn a second language in the same way that infants learn their native tongue. He claimed that a lot of the linguistic input young children hear is in the form of a command. They respond physically, which activates the right side of the brain, thus allowing them to be able to internalize language immediately.

On the first day of a Beginner Level English language class, the teacher might initially ask students to stand up, sit down, jump, walk, turn and stop. Then later, commands might include more information, such as touch your head, write the number 3, point to the window and walk to the door.

As students become more advanced, the teacher will introduce new linguistic elements such as prepositions (walk between John and Mary), adjectives (pick up the red pen) and adverbs (stand behind your chair), and will develop sets of commands with more and more detailed and complicated information.

Silent Way

Like TPR, Silent Way was created in the 1960s by one specific educator – Caleb Gattegno. He believed that the best way for a student to learn a language was for a teacher to remain silent for a large portion of the lesson. At the time, Silent Way was viewed as an unconventional or alternative method by mainstream experts.

Interestingly, while the method has its detractors, there is no question that it was the catalyst for a paradigm changing shift in the way we view the role of the teacher and the student. Silent Way was the first method to really emphasise student learning rather than the teacher’s teaching. Students take an active role in the learning process and are encouraged to participate as much as possible.

This focus on developing student autonomy with the teacher acting as a facilitator is now completely accepted as a valid and effective teaching philosophy.


Methods were popular and mainstream up until the 1990s, when experts in the field started to suggest that the key learning goal of language teaching and learning be communicative proficiency.

To achieve this, it’s important to acknowledge that different cohorts have different weaknesses that need to be addressed, which therefore requires a flexible teaching approach from the instructor, rather than a rigid methodology.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

In the 1990s, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) quickly became the most popular approach and is now the central paradigm in English language teaching. CLT emphasizes the engagement of learners in classroom activities that replicate real-life situations, so they can practice how to communicate in the real world outside the classroom.

To improve communication skills for use in the outside world, the teacher engages learners in the pragmatic and functional use of language, with a focus on meaning and fluency, rather than form and accuracy – very much a practical rather than theoretical way of learning.

The primary goal of CLT is for learners to develop communicative competence which involves linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence.

Features of CLT include communication through interaction (cooperative and collaborative learning), the use of authentic texts and students contributing personal experiences. Classroom activities, such as role plays, interviews, games and surveys are completed in pairs and small groups, requiring debate, negotiation and compromise.

Task-based Teaching (TBT)

Task-based Teaching (TBT) [and Task-based Learning (TBL)] is the approach that TESOL Advantage advocates as best practice when it come to English language teaching.

While TBT’s basic principles are derived from CLT, there are some important differences. Critics of CLT have raised the following concerns:

  1. Teachers can struggle with the non-specific requirements of CLT.
  2. Teachers are often worried about giving up too much control during a CLT exercise.
  3. Many learners have low intrinsic motivation to communicate in a foreign language and so struggle with CLT student-centric exercises.
  4. Because CLT is a meaning-focused approach, learners may struggle with grammar issues.

TBT addresses all of these concerns. It gives teachers a specific requirement to focus on – getting the students to complete a task. Teachers worried about their classes becoming chaotic because of a lack of structure in the lesson now have clear steps that create guidelines and boundaries – a pre-task, task and post-task.

Students become more empowered and motivated when they complete tasks because they ‘own’ the language and control the task response. While TBT definitely has a greater focus on meaning than form, teachers can add an optional language focus at the end of a task to cover any grammatical issues that the task highlighted.

For more information on TBL, you can read the article ‘What is Task-based Learning’ on our website.

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