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What Are the Different Types of ESL Teaching Methods?

ESL teaching methods vary widely, from the Direct Method focusing on immersion, to the Grammar-Translation Method emphasizing reading and writing. Each approach has unique benefits, tailored to different learning styles and objectives. Curious about which method suits your learning style best?
Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett

There are many different types of ESL teaching methods, most of which resemble teaching methods used to teach other languages that are not the student's first language. Teaching methods for English as a foreign language may focus on particular problems students often have when learning English, which include pronunciation and grammar problems. The strategies employed by any particular teacher may be different, but common methods include traditional memorization, sentence practice, and games. When possible, immersion is often found to be the most successful teaching method for any language, including English.

ESL teaching methods are usually different depending on the age of the students. Younger students often benefit from flashcards, games, and practice exercises that do not emphasize the underlying rule being used in the language. Adults often find it much less frustrating to read the grammatical rule that is being employed and then practice using that rule. When students are within a specific age or grade level, a school may mandate that certain ESL teaching methods and materials be used. Often, these are designed to meet the demands of relevant English tests.

Vocabulary cards for learning English.
Vocabulary cards for learning English.

At all age levels, various ESL teaching methods can be used. In the past, it was very common for ESL classes to focus primarily on translation as a teaching tool, although this is now much less common. Teaching methods may also focus entirely on spoken language, as learning through hearing is often considered more natural. Generally, teaching methods for English must not only teach students how to say specific phrases but also how to innovate new ones.

Full immersion in a language is often the best teaching strategy.
Full immersion in a language is often the best teaching strategy.

Although methods that focus on theories of language learning are interesting theoretically, actual teaching strategies used in a classroom generally must address specific problems in the English language. Many students have problems with pronunciation, and exercises that isolate specific sounds in the English language often make excellent ESL teaching methods. Likewise, challenging students with grammatical problems in the abstract can also be useful even if a teacher believes that students tend to learn second languages primarily through hearing the language.

Not all ESL courses focus on the same level of learning, and more advanced classes may make use of very different teaching methods than basic courses. For example, techniques for reducing a student's accent and improving how he or she can express thoughts in a language are important at higher levels, but this requires the student to already have a mastery of grammar. The philosophy of language learning to which the teacher subscribes often affects which ESL teaching methods are used and can even impact the development of new methods. As such, there are many new ESL teaching techniques being invented today as new ideas about how to learn languages evolve.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - In the case of adults, I think it's so important to establish trust between all the students and the teacher. Teaching English when you're in an English speaking country should never be just about learning in a classroom. You can take them on field-trips just by walking down the street or going to the supermarket.

Another thing I want to point out is to keep in mind that your teaching methods should match the goals of the learners. If they just want to be able to communicate with their neighbors, then stick to conversational English and don't be too pedantic about the finer points of grammar.

If they want to know business English or English for a particular environment (like a job) then you're going to have to be more of a stickler and probably go more deeply into cultural expectations as well.


@Fa5t3r - I've taught English to adults and to children and another thing that needs to be taken into account is the needs of individual learners.

Adults tend to be much more reticent about learning a new language, especially if they are among their peers, because they think they will be embarrassed if they get something wrong. Children are more inclined to just treat it as another subject to learn and may need encouragement to extend themselves.


I did a short course on teaching ESL for a particular agency that had volunteers teaching new immigrants the English language. I found the most useful part was when they had a person come in and teach us some basic Korean without using a word of English as a guide. She really helped to show us how you can teach a language when you don't have one in common, something that I hadn't even realized was possible in such a short time.

The experience was also illuminating because it highlighted that teaching a language isn't just about getting someone to memorize words. Your fundamental assumptions about everything might be different and that's something that needs to be explored.

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    • Vocabulary cards for learning English.
      By: Gembo
      Vocabulary cards for learning English.
    • Full immersion in a language is often the best teaching strategy.
      By: Igor Mojzes
      Full immersion in a language is often the best teaching strategy.