Should We Follow the Direct Method?

How Much L1 Should Language Teachers Use in Class? 

The “Direct Method” says, “Rule #1 is that we should always use the target language and never use the students’ first language (L1) in class.” Though the Direct Method is dated, some English teachers may feel obligated (or perhaps guilty) if they don’t follow this rule. However, the rule is not reasonable, and it can be counterproductive because (1) it puts too much pressure on non-native teachers of English, and (2) because we can use the L1 in judicious ways to promote learning in the classroom. The following guidelines are written for Japanese teachers of English, but they can work for all language teachers trying to balance the use of the target language and the L2 in foreign language classrooms.

First, as a goal, we would be wise to use the target language as much as possible in class as long as students understand it. In this sense, we carefully apply Krashen’s input hypothesis: “We acquire languages by understanding messages.” Thus, for classroom management, modeling student-student interaction, and simply doing our lessons, we can use the target language as much as possible to guide students through the process of learning while making our lessons comprehensible for our students. The key is this: When using the target language in class, we need to make it clearly comprehensible to students.

With this basic principle in mind, we can now consider the judicious use of Japanese in the English classroom. That is, we may want to use Japanese in order to:

  • Explain short, but complicated grammar points.
  • Briefly explain the rationale, learning theory, or linguistic science that supports our classroom tasks so students understand why we do what we do.
  • Provide a quick word definition (translation) when the L2 doesn’t work quickly.
  • Check comprehension, if using the L2 doesn’t work quickly.
  • To make a text or phrase understandable, if using the L2 doesn’t work quickly.
  • Explain how to do an activity, if physically showing the students how to do it while using the L2 isn’t effective.
  • Lower pressure, build rapport, tell jokes, remembering that we can also do these things using the target language.

The above guidelines show that we can use the L1 in our English classes in order to benefit the teaching of English. That is, the L1 can actually help us teach the L2. Though these guidelines may seem reasonable, some new teachers may find them challenging and difficult, and they may feel much more comfortable using their native language as they teach. In such cases, these teachers can increase target language input for their students by preparing a simple script of their lessons in English. These scripts can be saved and backed up on computers for future revision and use. A simple technique like this can help teachers maximize comprehensible L2 input in class while judiciously using the L1 to support the teaching of English.

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.