From Audio-Lingual to Suggestopedia: ELT Methodologies through the years  

The world of English Language Teaching is an ever-evolving one. Throughout the years, many different approaches and methods for teaching language have come and gone, with more than a few indelibly leaving their mark on the field and its practitioners thereafter. These changes and differing schools of thought have arisen due to a variety of factors, most often reflecting the latest developments in linguistic theory and shifts in educational paradigms and sociocultural contexts.  

But what exactly do we mean by an “approach” or a “method”? Is there a difference? Although often used interchangeably, we should point out the following commonly accepted distinctions:  


  • An approach is generally understood to be an overarching set of beliefs or principles that guide the design of a language curriculum, as in the Communicative Approach.  
  • A method, however, usually refers to a specific way of teaching language based on the principles outlined by a particular approach, such as the specific techniques and procedures put into practice when employing the Audio-Lingual Method.  
  • A methodology, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses both the approach and the method, as well as other aspects of language teaching, such as classroom management, assessment, and materials development.  

Now that we have a clearer understanding of what we mean by these terms, let us look at some of the most common methodologies to arise in the field of ELT over the last century or so.  

Audio-Lingual Method: Developed in the 1950s, its origins are traced back to training soldiers in the US military for overseas duties; for this reason, it is also known as the “Army Method”. It is based on behaviorist theory and focuses on learning grammatical and phonological structures through repetition and drills, the goal of which being to help students produce automatic responses in the foreign language. Popular examples of variations of this method include the Berlitz Method and the Callan Method, which both employ various drilling techniques and promote oral communication as the key to developing fluency in a language.  

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT): Also known as the Communicative Approach, CLT has undoubtedly become one of the central pillars of English Language Teaching over the last decades. Emerging in the 1970s as a response to the limitations of the previously established methods (i.e., Grammar Translation, Audio-Lingual), CLT is based on the idea that language is a tool that learners need to use in meaningful interactions. While exact execution may vary (as CLT is continually evolving and being iterated upon), key principles tend to be learner-centeredness, cooperative learning, focusing on real-world communicative tasks and a general preference for fluency over accuracy. In terms of execution, CLT is often centered around “PPP”: Presentation – Practice – Production. Using this general structure, the teacher first presents a new language item (e.g., grammar point), then provides some controlled practice activities (e.g., gap-fill), and then finally a productive activity (e.g., role-play) where learners can use the language item in a more authentic, communicative way (thus helping to cement their command over it).  

Community Language Learning (CLL): In this humanistic approach, the teacher acts as a counselor and facilitator, with the primary focus being interaction and peer collaboration. In CLL, learners are encouraged to express their personal needs, feelings, and experiences, oftentimes in their native language (L1); therefore, the teacher must be able to speak the students’ L1 and then aid them in expressing those ideas in English (L2). The main aim of CLL is to create a supportive and non-threatening environment where learners can increase their confidence and thereby develop their communicative competence.  

Direct Method: Also commonly referred to as the Natural Approach (albeit with minor distinctions), the Direct Method was originally developed in the late 19th century as a reaction to the Grammar-Translation Method. The central tenet of this method is to mimic the way a child learns their first language (L1), and therefore consists of using only the target language (L2) in the classroom, sans translation. Students therefore learn English through observation, interaction and trial and error, similar to how they learned their first language, with new vocabulary and grammar being introduced primarily via realia and visual aids. In contemporary practice, such as in the Berlitz Method, for example, it combines aspects of both the Direct Method and the Audio-Lingual Method.  

Dogme: Also known as Dogme ELT or Teaching Unplugged, this method has its origins in the avant-garde Danish film movement (known as Dogme95), which centered around a more naturalistic style of filmmaking. This method strives to create authentic and meaningful interactions in the target language, based on the learners’ needs and interests, focusing largely on emergent language and topics of conversation rather than textbooks or traditional classroom materials.  

Grammar-Translation Method: Often viewed as the “old school” way of teaching a language; also referred to as the classical or traditional method due its origins in the scholarly teaching of ancient Latin and Greek, focusing on understanding classical literature and developing intellectual skills (as opposed to actually learning to speak those languages). This method is very teacher-centered, with the teacher being considered the ultimate authority and source of knowledge, while the students are passive receivers of instruction. Though often criticized in the past, in recent years ELT professionals have argued that it still has a role to play in language teaching, especially for advanced learners who need to master complex grammatical structures and more specialized vocabulary.  

Lexical Approach: The Lexical Approach is focused on, well… lexis! Yes, vocabulary, in the form of lexical units, or “chunks” (made up of collocations, fixed expressions, etc.), is the central pillar of language acquisition, as opposed to grammar. Consequently, the main aim here is to acquire and practice a continually expanding bank of lexical items to achieve more natural, fluent L2 production.  

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): Originally founded in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, NLP arose from the study of successful therapists and communicators. In ELT, NLP uses “modelling” to train the mind for improvement, with the central premise being that language learning is socio-emotional, as opposed to purely cognitive, process. By employing certain coaching techniques, the teacher guides the learner’s communication attempts to help them achieve their desired outcomes.  

Silent Way: The Silent Way is a completely learner-centered, humanistic approach, based on the idea that the teacher should speak as little as possible and learners as much as possible. Cuisenaire rods and other interactive classroom materials are used to teach pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary in a more autonomous way.  

Suggestopedia: Based on the idea that students can learn more effectively if they are relaxed, comfortable and confident, this particularly humanistic approach uses various techniques to create a warm and welcoming learning environment. Elements such as background music and comfortable seating are carefully considered to help create “positive suggestion” for subsequent classroom activities, such as expressive reading and storytelling.  

Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT): Sometimes considered a branch of (or successor to) CLT, a task-based approach revolves around using authentic language to perform meaningful tasks in the target language (e.g., organizing an event, planning a trip, etc.). As opposed to the traditional Communicative Approach, TBLT focuses more on the process and outcome of tasks rather than on the forms and functions of language. This is especially evident in syllabus/lesson planning and assessment, which tend to look more at task complexity, sequencing, and overall achievement of task objectives.

Total Physical Response (TPR): Often considered a branch or subset of techniques of the Direct Method/Natural Approach, TPR is specifically focused on the way that children learn their mother tongue through “language-body conversations” with their parents and can be especially effective when used with young learners or beginners. It is based on the idea that if learners must do something physical in response to language (e.g., “stand up”, “sit down”, “jump”), then learning occurs at a faster pace and is more meaningful, thus leading to better internalization of the target language.  

As you can see, there are a number of widely differing schools of thought on the best way to learn a language. Today, however, many ELT professionals tend to be of the idea that we are actually living in the “post-method” era: an especially fruitful time in language teaching where,

instead of doggedly adhering to one specific methodology, we have the freedom to pick and choose from myriad options,

thus being able to better adapt to different learners and teaching settings. In the end, the more we can cater to learners’ specific needs, interests, and objectives, leveraging all the tools and techniques we have at our disposal as teachers, the more effective our teaching will become… and the more successful our students.  

For more information on other ELT terms and general concepts, please be sure to click here.