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

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.