The natural approach is one of the communicative approaches to language teaching presently in use. It is based on the work of Tracy Terrell and Stephen Krashen who published their book The Natural Approach in 1983. The book contains theoretical sections prepared by Krashen, as well as sections on classroom implementations prepared by Terrell.
The natural approach is one of the, "language teaching methods based on observation and interpretation of how learners acquire both first and second languages in nonformal settings." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 190) Krashen and Terrell saw the approach as a "traditional approach to language teaching [because it is] based on the use of language in communicative situations without recourse to the native language." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 178)
With regard to language, Krashen and Terrell place emphasis on the primacy of meaning and communication. In contrast to grammar, which does not require special attention or analysis, vocabulary plays a paramount role.
The theory as well as the design and procedures in The Natural Approach are based on Krashen's language acquisition theory. The basic principles of Krashen's theory are outlined in his Monitor Model (1982), a model of second language acquisition consisting of five hypotheses:
1. The Acquisition-learning hypothesis makes a distinction between acquisition and learning. Krashen defines acquisition as, "unconscious process that involves the naturalistic development of language proficiency through understanding language and through using language for meaningful communication." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 181) Learning, on the other hand, is a conscious process in which rules of a language are developed; this process only occurs through formal teaching, and cannot lead to acquisition.
2. According to the monitor hypothesis, "the acquired system initiates a speaker's utterances and is responsible for spontaneous language use." (Lightbown & Spada 2006: 37) The learned system, by contrast, has the function of a, "monitor or editor that checks and repairs the output of the acquired system." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 181) This monitor can, "either operate post-hoc in the form of self-correction or as a last minute change of plan just before production." (Lennon 2008: 97) Moreover there are three conditions which have a limited effect on the success of the monitor: time, focus on form and correctness, and knowledge of rules.
3. The Natural Order Hypothesis says that, "the acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predictable order." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 182) This natural order can be found in first language acquisition as well as in second language acquisition.
4. According to the Input Hypothesis, "acquisition occurs when one is exposed to language that is comprehensible and that contains i+1." (Lightbown & Spada 2006: 37) The "i" stands for the acquirer's current level of proficiency. He is able to move to a higher stage by understanding language containing "i+1" (where "+1" stands for language which is slightly beyond the acquirer's current level of competence).
5. The affective filter hypothesis states that there is an "affective filter" which can act as a, "barrier that prevents learners from acquiring language even when appropriate input is available." (Lightbown & Spada 2006: 37) With regard to second language acquisition affective variables can be attitudes or emotions like motivation, self-confidence and anxiety. A low affective filter is always desirable because a high affective filter, which can be found for example with anxious learners, "prevents acquisition from taking place." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 183) Krashen also tried to explain variations in success in language acquisition with this hypothesis; in particular he used it to explain the advantages of children over adults regarding language acquisition.
With regard to language teaching Krashen's hypotheses imply:
- "as much comprehensible input as possible" (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 182)
- materials and aids that foster comprehension
- focus on reading and listening
- meaningful communication and interesting input to keep the affective filter low
Activities and materials
Within a natural approach, emphasis is placed on comprehensible input, meaningful communication and a relaxed classroom atmosphere. "To minimize stress, learners are not required to say anything until they feel ready, but they are expected to respond to teacher commands and questions." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 185) There is a gradual progression from "Yes/No" and simple display questions, to more complex and open questions.
"There is nothing novel about the procedures and techniques advocated for use with the Natural Approach." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 185); familiar activities like command-based activities, situation-based activities, and group-work activities focus on, "providing comprehensible input and a classroom environment that cues comprehension of input, minimizes learner anxiety, and maximizes learner self-confidence." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 185)
Materials used in a natural approach classroom aim at making activities and tasks as meaningful as possible -- they foster comprehension and communication. Authentic materials, like brochures or maps, as well as visual aids and games are used to facilitate acquisition and to promote comprehension and real communication.
Learner and teacher roles
The learners' roles change and develop during a natural approach course because there are various stages they have to go through. The first stage is the pre-production stage where the learners are not forced to respond orally and are allowed to decide their own when to start to speak. The next stage, the early-production stage, fosters short answers and the student have to respond to simple questions and to use fixed conversational patterns. In the speech-emergent stage the use of complex utterances emerges, for example in role plays or games. Another important role of the language acquirer is that of "a processor of comprehensible input [who] is challenged by input that is slightly beyond his or her current level of competence and is able to assign meaning to this input through active use of context and extralinguistic information." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 186)
The natural approach classroom allocates a central role for teacher, giving them several important roles.
- First, the teacher provides a constant flow of comprehensible input in the target language and provides non-linguistic clues.
- Second, the teacher has to create a harmonious classroom atmosphere that fosters a low affective filter. Third, the teacher decides on the classroom activities and tasks regarding group sizes, content, contexts, and materials.
- Finally, the teacher must, "communicate clearly and compellingly to students the assumptions, organizations, and expectations of the method." (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 188) Krashen and Terrell point out the importance of explaining to learners what they can expect and what not of the language course.
Lennon, P.: 'Second Language Acquisition Studies' in Gramley, S. & Gramley, V. (eds.) (2008). Bielefeld Introduction to Applied Linguistics. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, pp 91-101.
Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2006). How Languages are Learned (third edition). Oxford: OUP.
Richards, J.C. & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (second edition). Cambridge: CUP.