Five Approaches to Teaching Foreign Languages


Houston, we have a problem. Not a major one, but one I’d like to address, nonetheless. 

This past week, as I was writing my curriculum round-ups (for Spanish, French, and Latin), I found myself in a bit of a conundrum. Mainly, I was finding it really hard to describe and compare the teaching methods of these language programs without using specialized terminology.  

Now, I really don’t want to get down in the weeds and overwhelm you with academic jargon. However, there is a real value to us having a shared vocabulary, so that when I describe the methodology of a particular curriculum, you know exactly what I mean. This kind of common language can help you make a more informed choice about how to homeschool foreign languages—the kind of choice you make, for example, when you pick either a phonics-based or a sight word-based curriculum for teaching reading. When you understand the basic principles of those two approaches, you can make a better choice, and I want to help you compare foreign language programs in that same way. 

Therefore, today, I’m sharing a very short glossary (just five terms!) of the most common approaches to language teaching. Most homeschool language curriculums use one of these approaches—or a combination of them—so if you can master these terms, you can quickly understand how any given curriculum approaches language instruction. 

Here are the five terms you need to know: 

Audio-lingual Model: The audio-lingual model is based on the idea that repetition is key to language learning, and it is a very structured method that relies on students listening to, repeating, and even memorizing dialogues and short statements in the target language. Accuracy in speaking—more so than flexibility—is the highest goal. No instruction is provided in the native language, and grammar is not a focus. 

Communicative Approach: The communicative approach, as its name suggests, focuses on getting students to communicate—orally and in writing—in real-life scenarios in the target language. A communicative curriculum might be organized thematically, with a unit, for example, that is focused on teaching food vocabulary. After the student memorizes the basic vocabulary, he/she would be encouraged to complete a number of communicative tasks related to that theme, such as making a grocery list in the target language or working with a partner to complete a recipe written in the target language. Explicit grammar instruction is not a core part of this approach, but it is not antithetical to it either. All four skills are emphasized with the communicative approach: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. 

Direct Instruction: I think that this term is by far the most misleading. When you hear “direct instruction,” you may think that it means “teaching grammar,” but that’s not actually the case—and in fact, direct instruction is the total opposite! The direct method of language learning is based on the idea that students acquire a second language much in the way that they learned their native language—through total immersion. Therefore, a strict direct approach requires all instruction to be provided in the target language. This approach also encourages children to start using the language from the start, and equips them to do so through the teaching of short, commonplace phrases and many repetitive practice exercises. Listening and speaking are the top teaching priority, and it is assumed that grammar will be “inferred” as the child becomes more proficient in the language. Charlotte Mason’s approach to teaching foreign languages is an example of direct instruction. 

Grammar-Translation Model: If your family has learned a “dead” language like Greek or Latin—or if you learned a foreign language in a classroom a few decades ago—chances are that you have experience with the grammar-translation model. This model of language teaching focuses on learning grammar through comparisons. A sample activity in the Grammar-Translation classroom might be to diagram a sentence in both English and Latin in order to help the student become aware of the grammatical differences between the two languages. This model is generally focused on reading and writing, and oral communication skills are deemphasized. 

Total Physical Response (TPR): The Total Physical Response approach is based on neuroscience research that demonstrates an intimate connection between physical movement and language acquisition. It has a heavy emphasis on teaching vocabulary, which kids acquire as they learn a physical movement to accompany each new word or phrase in the target language. For example, a teacher will instruct her student to “Sit down,” and then demonstrate the action; the student then repeats “Sit down” and completes the action himself—thus learning a new phrase. Grammar is not taught explicitly, but learned “inductively” through exposure to many different phrases. 

And now, I hope that wasn’t too overwhelming! Thanks for bearing with me as I prepare these round-ups; I know that they’ve been a bit delayed, but I thought that this post was super important to give to you, so that you could make the most of what I have coming up next.