Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: the natural approach

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced

Practical advice on The Natural Approach and how to use it in the ELT classroom.


I am currently studying on a DELTA course in the UK and I need to find out more about The Natural Approach and how to apply it in the ELT classroom. Any practical ideas?

Rebecca Greenall

For those who are not already familiar with it, here is the entry for NATURAL APPROACH from The A-Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury, shortly to be published by Macmillan:

The term natural approach (or natural method) was first used in the nineteenth century to describe teaching methods, such as the direct method, that attempted to mirror the processes of learning a first language. Translation and grammar explanations were rejected, learners were exposed to sequences of actions, and the spoken form was taught before the written form. The term was resurrected by Tracy Terrell in the 1970s to describe a similar kind of approach. Learners were initially exposed to meaningful language, not forced to speak until they felt ready to, and not corrected or given explicit grammar instruction. The method was characterized by a lot of teacher talk, made intelligible through the use of visual aids and actions. The method was endorsed by Stephen Krashen, whose input hypothesis gave it theoretical validity. It also shared many principles in common with Total Physical Response (TPR). These included the importance of comprehensible input, and of promoting positive affect in the learning process. The natural approach seems to have become absorbed into what are generally known as humanistic teaching practices and whole language learning.

As for practical ways of implementing these principles, this will depend on the level of the class. At beginner level, lots of TPR activities are called for, where learners simply respond to instructions by performing physical actions, such as pointing at things, handing each other objects, standing, walking, sitting down, writing and drawing. At higher levels, the focus is still on providing comprehensible input, in the form of listening or reading tasks, where learners order pictures, fill in grids, follow maps, and so on.

These can be combined with communicative speaking tasks, such as ‘describe-and-draw’ or ‘spot-the-difference’, where learners work in pairs to exchange information about pictures. The important thing is that there is no grammar ‘agenda’ as such: the learners perform the tasks to the best of their ability. New input – and hence the ‘push’ to improve – comes from watching the teacher or a more proficient speaker perform the same tasks. In this sense, the natural approach is not much different from task-based learning, but with perhaps more emphasis on comprehension than production. A typical natural approach lesson at elementary to intermediate level might go something like this:

  1. The teacher shows a set of pictures of, say, food and drink, repeating the word that goes with each with one; the students simply watch and listen.

  2. The pictures are displayed around the room, and the students are asked to point at the appropriate picture when the teacher names it.

  3. The students listen to a tape of a person (or the teacher) describing what they habitually eat at different meals; the students tick the items they hear on a worksheet.

  4. The students are then given a gapped transcript of the previous listening activity, and they fill in the gaps from memory, before listening again to check.

  5. The students, in pairs, take turns to read aloud the transcript to one another.

  6. The students, still in their pairs, tell each other what they typically eat, using the transcript as a model.

  7. They repeat the task with another partner, this time without referring to the model.

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