The Direct Method by Steve Schackne


Many classes I have observed over the years contain an unequal balance of energy. On one hand, we have teachers who furiously move back and forth in the classroom as they busily organize, control, encourage, and assess their students. During this process, many students sit listlessly in their chairs, their eyes saying, “I hear you, but I am not always listening to you.”

Conversely, some classes have teachers sitting back watching students who have been assigned multiple tasks to be completed in a fixed period of time. The students are concentrating on assigned textbook activities or, if it is a communicative task, are either circulating around the room or are busy at their desks giving and receiving information from fellow students. Students often work on time deadlines in these exercises and the goal of completion sometimes interferes with language quality.

I don’t want to generalize too much; both of these scenarios can yield positive results. However, a see-saw of sweating teachers and students isn’t always conducive to learning. A more relaxed, natural approach is a viable option.

Brief History

The natural method, also known as the direct method is often associated with Stephen Krashen and the late Tracy Terrell, but in fact had its beginnings over a hundred years ago in Europe where it began as a response to the grammar translation method. The core feature is its emphasis on the spoken language. Other characteristic features include:

• Teaching vocabulary through pantomiming, realia and other visuals
• Teaching grammar through an inductive approach
• Focusing on question-answer patterns
• Stressing teacher-centeredness

If we view the word natural in its most generic form, certainly speaking and listening would qualify as natural activities more than reading and writing. All people (excepting those with certain disabilities) naturally acquire speaking and listening skills, while reading and writing have to be taught. Conveying meaning through total physical response, such as hand gestures and other body language, is also, arguably, a naturally occurring communicative feature. Assimilating grammar rules through exposure to language is also a naturally occurring phenomenon for native learners, and all languages, of course, have some form of question-answer pattern as filling in information gaps is a primary purpose of language. Teacher centeredness may be the only feature that could be classified as artificial when placed in a language learning model.


Now, let us isolate the individual characteristics even more:

• Spoken language
• Vocabulary
• Grammar
• Question-answer patterns

Certainly speaking, and speaking using question-answer patterns would be considered a more natural communicative approach than teaching vocabulary or grammar. So we start with a lesson based on asking the students questions, having the students answer at least some of the questions, which can, in turn, give rise to other questions—a question-answer lesson.


But what questions do we bring into class? Questions based on a textbook? That would violate our “natural principle” in that a textbook is an artificially introduced language learning aid. Questions based on vocabulary or grammar? That would force us to stray from “real communication” and focus more on semantics and syntax.

In real life whom do we question and what questions do we ask them? We may question our family and loved ones, our colleagues and classmates, or total strangers. Take two or three days and make a note of all questions you ask, and to whom you address these questions. This is not as difficult as it seems, as you can recall many of these at the end of a day. This inventory will give you a catalog of the type of questions we ask during real communication events, and form the basis of questions you can bring into class.


Here is a brief inventory of my recently-asked questions:

1) You said you were going to Miramar for dinner last night; how was it?
2) Who won the first leg of the Thailand-Vietnam game?
3) Jane gave me a small gift for you; are you going to stop in for a drink tomorrow?

4) When do you want me to give you these course descriptions?
5) What are you doing after work?
6) Are you going anywhere during the break?

7) Excuse me, do you need any help?
8) Is this the Ka Ho building?
9) Do you have change for a 500?

Questions 1-3 are questioner to friend; questions 4-6 are questioner to colleague; questions 7-9 are questioner to stranger. Now what about the purpose of each question?

One--seeking information to make a choice; if it’s good I’ll go to the restaurant.
Two—seeking information based on personal involvement; I had a bet on the game.
Three—seeking information based on an obligation; I’ll stop by and give you the gift if you’ll be here.

Four—seeking information in order to manage time, meet a responsibility.
Five—seeking information in order to arrange a social engagement
Six—seeking information to satisfy curiosity.

Seven—seeking information in order to render assistance; I saw a tourist wandering the streets lost.
Eight—seeking information in order to meet an obligation; I needed to pay a bill in the building.
Nine--seeking information in order to complete a transaction; I was paying a small bill.

This list could go on, of course. I often ask my students, Now when is the essay due? I am not seeking information, just checking on their comprehension, do they understand when the essay is due? The most basic is, How are you? which is most often asked as a greeting, not an inquiry into your health. Be careful not to ask the non-communicative or purposeless question, such as John, what color is your shirt? John and the questioner both know what color the short is, so this would be an unnatural question.

Once we know what kind of questions we ask and why we ask them, we can easily develop questions for our students which conform to real language events. The following is a list of actual questions I have asked students in the last year based on 1-9 above:

One—I’m free on both days; which is more convenient for you?
Two—I heard you participated in the Shakespeare contest; how did you do, Trevor?
Three—Can you come by at 3:00 today? I’ll return your notebook then.
Four—Are there any changes requested for final examination week?
Five—Are you free after class Friday?
Six--Any special plans over the break?
Seven—Vicky, do you have any time this week? We can go over the essay then.
Eight—Do you know where the academic affairs office is? You can pick up an add/drop form there.
Nine—I can give the final grade through email, over the web site by student number, or I can give it to you in my office. Which is more convenient for you?

An added benefit here is that both vocabulary and grammar are subsumed in the question-answer paradigm, so the student is also being exposed to more traditional elements of language learning.

A Legitimate Criticism and an Answer

Many teachers argue that question-answer modules are good for launching real communication, but they can’t be readily adapted to the tight demands of a syllabus. True, but a syllabus and a textbook are not natural approaches (strictly speaking) to language acquisition, and we are looking at a direct, natural approach. Since this emphasizes an inductive approach, one might apply it to the question-answer module; that is, after an hour or two of questioning students, list language that was covered—structure, vocabulary, functions. Much of what appears on standard syllabi ends up being covered in a normal semester of questioning students. It just isn’t covered linearly, but in a more schematic fashion.

And Into Infinity

Question-answer paradigms are used at the elementary stages of language learning, often to model either pronunciation or grammar. Many of the questions are non-communicative, as mentioned above, and are, by definition, unnatural. Questioning with a communicative purpose, however, can not only serve as a useful approach to intermediate-stage learners, but can also be expanded to engage advanced learners.

The Socratic method tasks the questioner to explore the implications of others’ positions, thereby stimulating rational thinking and illuminating ideas. Here the original question is responded to as though it were an answer, forcing the first questioner to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the discourse. Granted, few learners reach this stage, at least in the classroom, but it is a useful reminder that questions and answers are genuine ciphers of real communication, both at a basic and advanced level, and their use in a classroom can combine both tuition and authentic language production.


I have a friend who is a highly regarded teacher here in the Macau SAR. He uses no textbook and has no syllabus—he simply talks to his students about their interests and their life, often introducing them to new experiences, such as cooking, painting, and word games. He is a well-known artist, a student of music, history, and language; in short, he brings a lot of knowledge into the classroom, but eschews almost all traditionally structured teaching approaches. His students, although quite young, often achieve amazing results. It is not uncommon for them to end up conversing effortlessly with native English speakers. What is his secret? He engages his students in a way native speakers engage each other; he uses a natural approach to impart and receive information from his charges. Granted, life is not only a series of questions and answers, but the question answer paradigm is a key language event. Using it in the classroom not only makes sense, but also involves students in real communication.

Suggested Reading

Direct method (education). Retrieved January 20, 2009 from Wikipedia: (a useable introduction to the Direct method, contributed to this article)

Socratic method. Retrieved January 20, 2009 from Wikipedia: (a useable introduction to the Socratic method, contributed to this article)

Schackne, Steve. The Common Sense Approach: How One Teacher Organized a Speaking Course for 200 Chinese Graduate Students in DevelopingTeachers.Com, 2004. (of possible interest to those who conduct listening-speaking classes)


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau.
His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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