The Direct Method followed the Grammar Translation Method and was to a large extent a reaction against it. It attempted to give students practice in spontaneous oral communication, and encouragement in thinking in the target language. It was also a total immersion method in direct contrast to grammar translation in which all instruction was in the students' L1.
It was popular in the first quarter of the 20th century, but was more successful in private schools than in large schools run by the state. Interestingly, one of its main proponents was the German Maximilian Berlitz, whose schools in the form of Berlitz International exist to this day.
The Direct Method (also known as the Natural Method) arose towards the end of the 19th century when, reacting against what they considered to be the shortcomings of the Grammar Translation Method, a number of linguists and teachers, including Gouin, Berlitz and de Sauzé, developed versions of what came to be known widely as the Direct Method.
The Direct Method is based on the idea that learning L2 must imitate the natural way humans learn any language, that is, the child’s learning of L1, which takes place without the interference of any other language. The primary goals of the method were for learners to communicate and to think entirely in L2.
Practitioners of this method use L2 exclusively and never use translation. Everyday vocabulary and structures are taught, and grammar is learnt inductively by generalising from examples. Oral communication skills are taught by question and answer exchanges between teachers and learners, with all new learning points being introduced orally.
Concrete vocabulary is taught through realia, pictures and demonstration, abstract vocabulary by association of ideas. Emphasis is placed on correct pronunciation. Self-correction of errors is encouraged.
The role of the teacher is to direct class activities, but students and teacher are partners in the learning process, and there is a large amount of Learner-Learner interaction.
Advantages - as perceived by its advocates
- It follows the natural order in which a child learns L1, that is, listening, speaking, reading, writing.
- It lays great emphasis on speaking, the most important skill for many learners.
- It avoids the unnatural block of translation in the communication process.
- Learners learn the language, not about the language.
- Learners have an active role.
- Lively classroom procedures motivate the learner.
- The learning is contextualised.
- The emphasis on speech make it attractive for those who need real communication in L2.
- The teaching of vocabulary through realia brings authenticity into the classroom.
Disadvantages - as observed by its critics
- Learning L2 is NOT like learning L1. The child learning L1 has no previous language-learning experience, but the learner learning L2 does.
- There is little systematic structural practice.
- Students get confused about grammar rules, since they are only learning it inductively (they could inducing incorrect rules).
- The method can be effectively used only by teachers who are native speakers.
- The learner is confronted with unstructured situations too soon.
- A great deal of teacher-energy is required.
Variations of the method are used in schools today, though more commonly in the private than in the public sector. Many of the techniques, use of realia, emphasis on speech, complete or partial absence of translation, self-correction, etc, have been taken up by followers of later methods and approaches.