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David Johnson

A swinging pendulum: A history of English Language Teaching

I have a theory about educational theory. Let me know if you agree. It seems as

though we can place most (if not all) educational theory either on a continuum, or better

still on a pendulum. A new approach to teaching a specific content or a specific skill is

developed and it is promoted as the way. Then along comes another approach which may

be antithetical to the previous approach, but nonetheless it is now hailed as the way. Of

course, enthusiasm for this latest approach wanes and the first approach re-emerges

(often with a new name). Consider the reading controversy. When I was in graduate

school in the early 1990s, literacy programs were touting the benefits of Whole

Language. It was promoted as a solution to address students doing too much decoding

of and not enough engaging with the text. Sounds reasonable and this did come on the

heels of a decades-long tradition of teaching phonics which, while effective, can

mistakenly equate literacy with decoding. Recently the pendulum has swung back to a

more phonics-based approach because critics contended the Whole Language approach

did not produce the results it promised. I criticize neither side. I do think, though, that

both approaches added to our understanding of what kids do when they read and how we

can best help them.

I suppose it boils down to something I read in the Homer’s The Odyssey a long

time ago, a wise man giving counsel to Odysseus said, “In all things, balance it better.”

Sound advice from a bygone age. I have tried to make it a habit of avoiding extremes in

most situations. Of course avoiding extremes necessitates perspective. We can see the

folly of extremes and blind enthusiasm for a new method but only from perspective; we

need distance. This is why I admire those who qualify for social security. They have

seen a lifetime of extremes and somehow this gives them some perspective which more

often than not translates into wisdom. Homer certainly falls into this category.

So what does this have to do with the history of English Language Teaching

(ELT)? ELT is a case study in extremes and pendulum swings. This will be my

metaphor. I wish I created it, but I did not. But I will use it to illustrate the paradigm

shifts that have come and gone in ELT. I believe, and some may disagree, that the

paradigm has revolved around one issue: grammar. Grammar is one of those interesting

issues that everyone has an opinion about. Next time you want to start a lively discussion

ask someone if grammar should be taught in schools. Better yet, say something like, “We

have too much/little (your choice) grammar instruction in elementary schools”

(Andrews, 2001). The grammar issue is even more critical in ELT and this is the issue

that attracts and repulses the pedagogical pendulum. It will be the central issue as I

explore the major trends in ELT.

The Classical Era

To understand the history of ELT we must look at the history of teaching foreign

languages because this greatly influenced how English has been taught in the 20th and

21st century. We can start with the 16th century. Latin was the language used throughout

much of Western civilization for education, commerce, religion, and government

(Richards and Rogers, 1986). The vernacular was beginning to be used more in

educational settings, but Latin was still used as the medium of oral and written

communication and so members of society learned Latin for communicative purposes.


However, something very important happened linguistically in the 17th century

that would change the emphasis of foreign language study. Consider the 17th century.

Michelangelo had finished the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo da Vinci had sketched a flying

machine a century before, and rich patrons were sponsoring the arts. It was a time to

return to Roman and Greek antiquity and search for lost wisdom. It was the Renaissance.

And what embodied the Renaissance more than Latin? However, Latin’s use for

communication was diminishing. It simply was not used as much as vernacular

languages, but educators of the day maintained its importance. It became a “subject” in

school to be studied in a grammatical fashion: rote learning of grammar rules and

vocabulary, studying of declensions and conjugations, and translation. The goal was to

develop an ability to read classic texts such as those from Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero. Thus,

reading became the primary focus of foreign language curriculums. This is a major event

and should not be glossed over. Latin was a subject now. It was indeed a foreign

language and it was treated as such and furthermore, a grammatical approach was

appropriate methodology.

Grammar. It was viewed as the key to effective reading. Educators also saw a

second benefit to the grammatical approach: mental discipline. Studying grammar

strengthened and improved the mind. So studying grammar became good in and of itself

even if the foreign language was never put to any communicative endeavors beyond

reading. It trained and honed the mind. Who could be against that? Whether it was true

was not questioned. I have my doubts, but that’s a different story. The point here is that

the pendulum had swung significantly for the first time and this swing was apocalyptic in

nature. This emphasis on formal grammar has influenced all foreign language instruction

in the West to the present day and this emphasis on formal grammar was not without its

consequences. An overt dependence on grammar instruction was, to put it mildly, not

that motivational to young minds. It simply was not that exciting. How many young

Latin “scholars” have recited these lines?

Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.

First it killed the Romans,

and now it's killing me.

Lapses in grammatical acumen were often met with swift punishments. Thus, foreign

language study was often equated with boredom and irrelevance. There were voices who

advocated reform (John Locke and Comenius) but they were ignored and so we have a

legacy of a pedagogical method based on, well, itself. “It must work because we’ve

always done it that way.” Not a compelling argument, but it was steeped in so much

history and tradition that it was hard to undermine.

So with the demise of Latin in communicative circles, the consequent rise of the

study of its grammar became the precedent for studying foreign language in the Western

World. (To be honest, I don’t know much about what was going on in other parts of the

world. I think this would be a fascinating comparison, but time and space does not

allow.) Even in modern times, school children attended “grammar” school. School

curriculums were influenced by the Medieval reliance on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric,

and dialectic). We derive the word “trivia” from this Latin work. The emphasis on

grammar was not only in foreign language but all aspects of the curriculum. Grammar

became a cornerstone in schools and grammatical knowledge was a hallmark of the

educated elite. Students in Great Britain studied not only Latin grammar, but used it as a

model for studying the grammar of English. Latin and, to a lesser degree, Greek were the

only foreign languages that were to be studied in a formal educational setting. These

were the languages of the erudite and the religious. These languages allowed one to read

classic texts and the Bible.

This approach became known as the Grammar-Translation Method and

influenced how other foreign languages were taught. Here are some of the main tenets of


• develops proficiency to read great works of literature

• strengthens mental discipline

• vocabulary should be limited to the reading selections and is taught through

bilingual dictionaries or word lists

• the sentence is the basis of lessons

• grammar and grammatical rules are taught deductively (i.e. explicitly)

• the students’ native language is the medium of instruction

• little to no emphasis is placed on oral skills

As “modern languages” were introduced into the schools, the precedent had been set.

The die had been cast. The pendulum had already swung towards grammar. Modern

foreign languages were studied in the same grammar-based format that Latin had been

previously. For nearly three centuries this method dominated second language

acquisition (SLA) pedagogy and, though it is not openly endorsed today, it is still

practiced in one form or another in many foreign language programs and classrooms

(Richards & Rodgers, 1986, p. 5).


19th Century: The pendulum swing again

It’s true. I just skipped three centuries. The reason being, very little changed

during this time. The pendulum was stuck in heavy grammar mode, but that would soon

change. During the late nineteenth century, reformers such as Francois Gouin and

Charles Berlitz began to advocate a shift away from grammar towards meaning. The

main impetus behind this reform attempt was that the grammar method did not develop

communication skills. Also, there was a growing awareness that somehow children

learned their first language with remarkable ease while adults struggled mightily with a

second. Gouin noted that despite his best efforts to learn German using the Grammar-

Translation method, he had no real communicative abilities even after years of study

(Brown, 1994). Gouin had gone to Germany and passed his time studying German

dictionaries and grammar books and much to his dismay he found that he was unprepared

to talk to anyone on the street. When Gouin returned to his native France, he found that

his three year-old nephew had mastered French! His experiences led Gouin to develop

the Series Method which encouraged teachers to use a series of connected sentences

without reference to grammar. Berlitz, who became more well-known than Gouin,

developed the Direct Method which had many of the same principles as the Series

Method. Here are some features of the Series Method and the Direct Method:

• classes only in the target language,

• a focus on oral communication

• an inductive approach to grammar

• a de-emphasis on translation

The pendulum had swung a 180 degrees. Instruction in formal rules of grammar

came to be seen as a hindrance. An inductive approach to grammar, which has learners

figure out the grammar on their own from the input they receive in the target language,

was revolutionary because for centuries students had been explicitly taught the grammar

rules of a language. Supporters of the inductive approach claimed it was more efficient,

retention was better, and true communication was possible. They were on to something

and it ultimately, though not immediately, would revolutionize the field.

An increase of communication between European nations provoked a rethinking

of the Grammar-Translation method that led to the reform efforts of Berlitz and Gouin.

The ability to effectively communicate became a higher priority than being able to

memorize grammar rules and vocabulary lists. The Grammar-Translation method slowly

gave way to other L2 methodologies that placed a premium on promoting

communicative abilities. Unfortunately, the reform efforts of Berlitz and Gouin were

short-lived. The late 19th century lacked vehicles for widespread dissemination of these

pedagogical ideas. U.S. schools failed to value the benefits of conversational skills and

by the early 20th century they had returned to a literature-based and grammar-based

curriculum so that reading would once again be primary. In 1929 a government report

called “The teaching of modern foreign languages in the United States” (often referred to

as the Coleman report) criticized the de-emphasis on reading skills. Gradually educators

returned to grammar-based approaches. The pendulum had swung again. A return to the

Grammar-Translation method remained the most popular approach until World War II.

During the war, there was a growing need for “Americans to become orally proficient

in the languages of both their allies and their enemies" (Brown, 1994, p. 57). The

National Defense Education Act of 1958 was a direct result of the Russian launching of

Sputnik. America was behind and it was time to catch up in math, science, and foreign

languages. Therefore, the U.S. military developed the Army Specialized Training

Program (ASTP) or the "Army Method." This method was based on behaviorists ideas as

promulgated by B.F. Skinner. It borrowed heavily from the Direct Method, prospered

after the war in educational institutions and later became known as the Audiolingual

Method (ALM). ALM has the following characteristics

• new material is presented in dialog form

• there is a dependence of mimicry and memorization of set phrases

• grammar is taught by inductive analogy (Brown, 1994, p. 57).

Again, the pendulum swung and this time I’m not sure where it landed. Maybe my

analogy breaks down, but maybe I can salvage it. Grammar was taken away as the

central focus, but other structures (such as formulaic responses) became central. There

was heavy emphasis on dialogues to help foreign language students internalize patterns.

So, maybe my pendulum analogy still works. Grammar was dismissed as the be all and

end all FL instruction and what happened next sent the FL world on its ear but it was a

necessary growing pain.

A pendulum force who never wanted to be: Chomsky (1957)

The polarization of foreign language teaching between two extremes was brought

to new levels with Noam Chomsky and the Chomskyan revolution that took place after

the publication of his 1957 work Syntactic Structures. Though Chomsky is a theoretical

linguist and not a second language pedagogue, his theories about the nature of language

radically altered the field of SLA. When Chomsky's theories were being disseminated in

the early 1960's, the Grammar-Translation Method (the “old” way) and ALM (the “new”

way) were still widely used in schools because it was easy to design a school-based

curriculum using these methods. Both the Grammar-Translation and ALM were based

on the notion that language learning was like any other kind of learning. The Chomskyan

revolution challenged this notion by claiming that language was an innate physical trait

that is present at birth. According to Chomsky, we are hard-wired to acquire language

and no amount of overt teaching affects a child's first language acquisition because the

child learns language in a biologically pre-determined sequence which requires input

from the environment. Chomsky's theories hinge on the notion that there is a language

acquisition device (LAD) designed to process input and develop a linguistic competence

(i.e. an internal grammar) based on that input.

This view of language not only challenged the prevailing structuralism theories of

linguistics, but also had enormous implications in second and foreign language teaching.

If, as Chomsky claimed, language was innate and there was a LAD, would it still be

accessible to adolescents and adults learning a second language? Also, if overt grammar

teaching was ineffective in developing linguistic competence, as Gouin and Berlitz had

postulated, then should not language teachers abandon grammar instruction and form-

based instruction in the classroom? Many L2 classroom teachers had continued with

Grammar-Translation because it was relatively simple to evaluate student performance

and they thought it would lead to more grammatical accuracy, but there was growing

evidence (both anecdotal and scientific) that form-based methods were ineffective.

As for Noam Chomsky, he was dubious that any of his ideas could be applied to

SLA. In fact, he tried to discourage those in pedagogy from basing their ideas on his

theories. They did anyway. Today, Chomsky is credited with a revolution in SLA that

he never intended.

Contemporary Approaches to SLA

There are those SLA theorists who have based their work on the Chomskyan

notion that the principles of language acquisition are innate and that linguistic input

allows the child to develop an internal grammar specific to the language input s/he hears.

In other words, a little bit of input goes a long way. If children learn a language just by

listening and interacting with adults and other children, then maybe that’s what is needed

for someone (child or adult) to learn a second language. It’s not hard to see that formal

grammar instruction was going to take a back seat for a while. Chomsky had forced a

pendulum swing. The effects of this swing produced a myriad of new language teaching

methodologies during the 1970s. David Nunan has referred to these as “designer

methods” because these are one size fits all. When these approaches appeared they were

touted as the perfect way in all situations. I think all our teaching radars go up (or should

go up) when we hear claims like this.

So what did these new methods look like? Here’s a sampling. Suggestopedia

tries to use meditation-type activities to relax the learner so that they can absorb the new

language input. Soft music is played and learners close there eyes while listening to the

language. I wouldn’t recommend this for high schoolers…they may just fall asleep. The

idea is intriguing and sound but I don’t know if it’s practical.


Another method that received some attention was that of the Silent Way. The

idea here is that teachers talk as little as possible (a novel concept!). Instead of

instructing the language learners using grammar and exercises, the instructor sets up

situations in which the learners have to work together to solve language problems.

Again, in an ideal world this may work very well, but I think in most teaching situations,

it just is not that feasible particularly with students who may not be that motivated.

James Asher's Total Physical Response (1977) is still used in many contexts today

because it not only included sound theory but was very practical. In Total Physical

Response (TPR) learners say very little; they simply respond to verbal commands by the

language teacher in the target language. Here’s a few commands from easy to hard (and

of course the instructor can model):

• touch your nose

• stand up and walk to the chalk board

• pick up three books and place them on Jane’s desk

You get the idea. The learner is supposed to be processing and not being forced to speak

until he/she is ready, much in the same way was infants and toddlers do when they are

learning to speak. This is a great start for beginners but it’s utility in more advanced

stages is questionable.

One of the better known methods in recent times is the Natural Approach and

Stephen Krashen (1983) is the name most often associated with this method. In many

ways this method is very similar to TPR. To utilize the Natural Approach, which many

researchers and practitioners do today, Krashen claims that a distinction must be made

between learning and acquisition in SLA. This is similar to Chomsky's distinction


between linguistic competence and linguistic performance. For Chomsky linguistic

competence is the internalized linguistic ability a native speaker has in her language.

Linguistic performance is actually what a speaker says, which may be full of stops,

pronunciation errors, grammar mistakes due to fatigue or other factors. For Krashen,

learning is the prescriptive grammar rules that L2 students memorize, and acquisition is

not memorization but an unconscious internalization of the language's structure based on

the comprehensible input that the student receives in a low anxiety environment.

According to Krashen, acquisition is the key to developing true communicative abilities

in the target language. The overt grammar rules are useless in language acquisition and

at best serve only to monitor output which will emerge after enough comprehensible

input has been presented.

Despite the wide acceptance of the Natural Approach by researchers and

classroom teachers, substantial criticism exists. Richards and Rodgers (1986) note that

Krashen and other supporters of direct methodologies ignore the practical realities of the

L2 classroom by failing to address questions of how to present sufficient comprehensible

input to all students in a limited time. A more serious theoretical criticism is that

Krashen ignores any possible interface between learned grammar rules and acquired

language (Brown, 1994). In other words, it is possible that the explicit grammatical rules

that students learn could do more than simply monitor output; they may also be capable

of helping the learner understand the input. To make things more problematic, Krashen

never explains the notion of comprehensible input (Ellis 1994) and what differentiates

comprehensible input from non-comprehensible input in an L2 learning setting.


While Krashen's theories continue to have an enormous impact in L2 theory and

practice, another approach is considered by many L2 teachers to have more practical

applications. This approach is the Communicative Approach which has its roots in Dell

Hymes' response to Chomsky's notion of linguistic competence. Hymes (1972) was

convinced that Chomsky's abstract notion of the ideal speaker developing linguistic

competence was too narrow because it neglected the social and cultural skills that an L1

or L2 learner must possess to effectively communicate. The Communicative Approach

attempts to incorporate these elements into its L2 teaching pedagogy by focusing on the

communicative nature of language. Savignon (1983) points out that this method is more

properly understood as an approach rather than a specific methodology because a

premium is placed on communication and various teaching strategies may be employed

to achieve this end. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is defined in many ways,

but a four-part definition developed by Canale and Swain (1980) remains a starting point

for all discussion. The four parts these authors discuss are

• grammatical competence,

• discourse competence,

• sociolinguistic competence

• strategic competence.

Teachers employing this approach focus on all of these competences instead of giving

priority to any one. Today CLT is the most dominant approach in L2 programs (Brown,

1994) precisely because it considers a range of competences. It goes beyond an abstract

notion of linguistic competence, which many L2 teachers deem insufficient when

students will use the L2 for real communicative tasks.


While the Grammar Translation Method, the Series Method, the Direct Method,

TPR, the Natural Approach and the Communicative Approach have all been used in

various ways, there remains little consensus of opinion about which method is best. The

debate concerning the role of explicit grammar instruction has had enormous effect on

how teachers design and implement language curriculum. Today one often hears phrases

such as informed eclecticism (Brown, 1994) in which the teacher used parts of all these

methods to fit their specific need. This only makes sense. Certainly methods that were

developed during the Renaissance may have relevance in 2003, but then again they may

have to be changed and adapted to fit new contexts.

Modern-Day issues 2003 and beyond:

So where are we today? What are some of the issues that dominate English

Language Teaching today and influence specific teaching methodologies? One of the

biggest issues is technology. Computers and the internet have begun to profoundly

influence how second languages are taught. Students have more access to language

through the internet. There are all sorts of different soft-ware and internet sites to teach

English. I remain hopeful but skeptical in regards to what these developments may bring.

I think one of the biggest challenges remains how to make the language access real and


There are also new program configurations and new specialized programs to meet

the needs of the language learner. There are English for Specific Programs (ESP) and

English for Academic Programs (EAP). These are immensely important for student

success because they target specific kinds of English that students may need for

education or job.

There are also some societal issues. One of these is a new developing field

known as World Englishes. By some estimates as many as 1 billion people use English

on a daily basis (Crystal, 1997, p. 61). If this is the case then by necessity the pendulum

will forever be focused on communication and not always on grammatical perfection.

There are too many people on the planet using English for too many purposes to limit

ourselves to one method particularly one that claims to fit all needs.

Another implication of World Englishes is that while many embrace English,

some people in the world may reject it because they see it as too dominating and too

imperialistic. In fact, some countries that were once an English colony and have a strong

English language tradition are seeking to give greater importance to national languages

despite English’s status as a global language. This would obviously affect how someone

teaches English in such a country.

So, the pendulum swinging may have slowed, but in many ways the quest has just

begun. New situations will continue to necessitate a re-evaluation of traditional method

and may shift the emphasis in ELT. One thing is certain, there is a growing awareness

that the context and goal in language learning should determine the methodology and not

the other way around.



Andrews, L. (2001). Linguistics for L2 teachers. Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence


Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to

second language teaching and testing. Applied linguistics, 1, 1-47.

Crystal, D. (1996). English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University


Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University

Brown, H.D. (1994). Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs,
New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents.

Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In J.B Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.),

Sociolinguistics, (pp. 269-293). New York: Penguin.

Krashen, S. & Terrel, T. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the
classroom. Oxford: Pergamon.

Richards, J. & Rodgers, T. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching:

A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savignon, S. (1983). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice.

Reading: Addison-Wesley.

For a detailed examination of the history of ELT consult:

Howatt, A.P. R. (1984). A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.