The history of the English teaching methodology

The history of the English teaching methodology

Language teaching has been around for many centuries, and over the centu­ries it has changed. Various influences have affected language teaching. Reasons for learning the language have been different in different periods. In some eras languages were mainly taught for the purpose of reading. In others, they were taught mainly to people who needed to use it orally. These differences influenced how language was taught in various periods. Also, theories about the nature of language and the nature of learning have changed. However, many of the current issues in language teaching have been considered off and on throughout history.


Before speaking about different methods, approaches, techniques or styles of teaching and learning it is useful to make clear the notions used for their de­scription.

It is necessary to understand that an approach is general (eg. Cognitive, Situational, etc.), that a method is a specific set of procedures more or less com­patible with an approach (eg.Silent Way, Total Physical Response, etc.), and a technique is a very specific type of learning activity used in one or more methods (eg. Using rods to cue and facilitate language practice). So, we can find two or three methods that can be classified to a certain approach to teaching a foreign language; we can give the example of two or three techniques used in a certain method or methods.

Methods of language teaching should be based on at least three corner­stones: 1) what is known about the nature of the language (linguistics); 2) what is known about the nature of the learner (psychology); 3) the aims of instruction.

Ancient times

The history of foreign language teaching goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. They were interested in what they could learn about the mind and the will through language learning. The classical languages, first Greek and then Latin, were used as lingua francas. Higher learning was given only in these lan­guages all overEurope. They were also used very widely in Philosophy or relig­ion, politics and business. Thus the educated elite became fluent speakers, read­ers, and writers of the appropriate classical language.

The Romans were probably the first to study a foreign language formally. They studied Greek, taught by Greek tutors and slaves. Their approach was less philosophical and more practical than that of the Greeks. We can assume that the teachers or tutors used informal and direct approaches to convey the form and meaning of the language they were teaching, and that they used aural (oral) tech-niques with no language textbooks, but rather a small stock of hand copied writ­ten manuscripts of some sort, perhaps a few texts in the target language, or crude dictionaries that listed equivalent words in two or more languages side by side.

Early modern times

In Europebefore the 16th century, much of the language teaching involved teaching Latin to priests. In the 16th and 17th centuries, French was a lingua franca for speaking to foreigners. Members of the court spoke French, of course, but it was also a necessary language for travellers, traders, and soldiers. French was fairly widely taught during this period, and a study of the theoretical books and language textbooks from this period indicate that many of the same ques­tions that are being considered today by language teachers were being considered then. These included questions about practice versus learning rules and formal study versus informal use.

Later during the Renaissance the formal study of the grammars of Greek and Latin became popular through the mass production made possible through the invention of the printing press. In the case of Latin, it was discovered that the grammar of the classical texts was different from’that of the Latin being used as a lingua franca (the latter subsequently being labeled “Vulgate Latin”, i.e. the Latin of the common people). Eventually major differences developed between the Classical Latin described in the Renaissance grammars, which became the formal object of instruction in schools, and the Latin being used for everyday purposes. This occurred at the same time that the Latin was being abandoned as a lingua franca, so no one was speaking Classical Latin any more, and various European vernaculars had begun to rise in respectability and popularity.

So, the status of Latin changed during this period from a living language that learners needed to be able to read, write in, and speak, to a dead language which was studied as an intellectual exercise. The analysis of the grammar and rhetoric of the Classical Latin became the model language teaching between the 17th and 19th centuries, a time when thought about language teaching crystallized in Europe. Emphasis was on learning grammar rules and vocabulary by rote, translations and practice in writing sample sentences. The sentences that were translated or written by the students were examples of grammatical points and usually had little relationship to the real world. This method came to be known as the grammar-translation method. Though some people tried to challenge this type of language education, it was difficult to overcome the attitude that Classi­cal Latin was the most ideal language and the way it was taught was the model for the way language should be taught.

17 – 18 centuries. Jan Comenius

Since the European vernaculars had increased in prestige and utility, it is not surprising that people in one country or region began to find it necessary and useful to learn the language of another country or region. Thus the focus in lan­guage study shifted back to utility rather than analysis during the 17* century. Perhaps the most famous language teacher and methodologist of this period is Jan Comenius, a Czech, who published books about his teaching techniques be­tween 1631 and 1658. Some of his techniques were the following:

use imitation instead of rules to teach a language;

have your students repeat after you;

use a limited vocabulary initially;

help your students practice reading and speaking;

teach language through pictures to make it meaningful. Thus, Comenius, for the first time, made explicit and inductive approach to learning a foreign language, the goal of which was to teach use rather than analy­sis of the language being taught.