Thursday, July 19, 2007

Being taught by the Direct Method

By Lida Baker - Los Angeles, California, USA

A discussion about the Direct Method takes me back more than 25 years, when I was a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. We were required to study a language we hadn't learned previously, and I picked French. The text, written by Pucciani and Hamel, followed a grammar syllabus and employed the authors' version of the Direct Method, which went like this:

Each day the teacher began the class by greeting us and making small talk for a minute or two. (I should point out that every word uttered by the teacher was in French, starting on day 1.) She then presented the day's teaching focus by embedding the grammar in a question, which she directed at a student in the class. The student would answer the question to the best of his ability, and the teacher would instruct him to write it on the board verbatim. We were not allowed to help or correct what the student wrote on the board. In fact, the question-and-answer process continued while the student was writing. Very quickly we learned to focus on what the teacher was saying, not on what the person at the board was writing.

The teacher would repeat this question-and-answer, write-the-answer-on-the-board sequence five times. Each question would have different vocabulary but the same target structure. When there were five sentences on the board, the questions and answers would stop. The teacher would call on students to read the sentences on the board and state whether they were correct or incorrect. If the sentence was incorrect, the teacher asked the student to correct it. If the student was unable to do so, the teacher called on someone else or corrected the error herself.

After going over the five sentences on the board, we would start a new question-and answer set with a slightly different focus from the one just completed (for example, the target verb might be different).

If this procedure sounds tedious, let me assure you that it was not. Student interest and participation were always very high. I attribute this to a number of factors:

1. The method was highly interactive.

2. Students got instant feedback on whether their sentences were correct or incorrect.

3. Alternating between aural-oral and board work gave students time to rest and reflect on what they were learning.

4. New language was presented in small, manageable chunks.

I recall being frustrated from time to time by the inductive presentation of the grammar. I am a "rule following" type of language learner, and it annoyed me when I couldn't find the rule. In those cases I would see the teacher after class and she would explain it to me in English.

That summer I traveled to France and, to my astonishment, was able to perform basic operations like ordering food, making a hotel reservation, and asking directions entirely in French. The method really worked. I have used it, along with other teaching techniques, to teach ESL grammar for more than 20 years.

However, I don't know how useful this version of the direct method will be for those who teach in a place like Japan. My French teachers were able to speak French exclusively because there is enormous overlap between French and English vocabulary and syntax. And of course the two languages have the same writing system.

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