The Natural Approach


In 1977 a teacher of Spanish in California called Tracy Terrell joined forces with Stephen Krashen, an applied linguist to develop a language learning method that was to become  known as the Natural  Approach.  Krashen and Terrell identified this approach with what they referred to as ‘traditional’ approaches to language teaching.  These are defined as being based on ‘the use of language in communicative situations without using recourse to the native language’ and also without reference to grammatical analysis, drilling or any particular theory of grammar.   The fact that the Natural  Approach and the Natural Method sound similar has led some to believe that they are synonymous terms.  However there are important differences between them.  The Natural Method is another term for what by the turn of the century had become known as The Direct Method.  The term ‘natural’ used in reference to the Direct Method, emphasised that the ideas underlying the method were believed to conform to the principles of naturalistic language learning in young children.  Similarly, the Natural  Approach, as defined by Krashen and Terrell also conforms to naturalistic principles found in successful second language acquisition.  Unlike the Direct Method, however, it places less emphasis on teacher monologues, direct repetition, and formal questions and answers, and less focus on accurate production of L2 sentences.  In the Natural Approach there is a strong emphasis on comprehensible input, rather than practice; optimising emotional readiness for learning.

Krashen and Terrell saw communication as the primary function of language and they refer to the Natural Approach as an example of communicative language teaching.   They rejected earlier methods of language teaching, such as the Audiolingual Method, which viewed grammar as the central component of the language.  According to Krashen and Terrell, the main problem with other methods was that they were built not around ‘actual theories of language acquisition, but theories of, for exampl, the structure of language’ (Krashen, 1983).   What Krashen and Terrell describe about the nature of language emphasises the importance of meaning.  The importance of vocabulary is stressed, for example, suggesting that language is essentially its lexicon and only inconsequently the grammar that determines how the lexicon is exploited to produce messages.  ‘Acquisition can only take place when people understand messages in the target language’ (Krashen/Terrell (1983).  The Natural Approach, therefore, does not require explicit analysis or attention by the language teacher, or by the learner.

The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis:

Claims that there are two distinct ways of developing competence in a 2nd language. Acquisition is the natural way, paralleling first language development in children.  Learning, by contrast refers to a process in which conscious rules about a language are developed.  Learning cannot lead to acquisition.

The Monitor Hypothesis

Claims that we may call upon learned knowledge to correct ourselves when we communicate, but that conscious learning (i.e. the learned system) has only this function.  Three conditions limit the successful use of this monitor:

  • Time – there must be sufficient time for a learner to choose and apply a learned rule
  • Focus on form – the language must be focused on correctness or on the form of the output.
  • Knowledge of rules – the performer must know ‘simply described’ rules.

The Input Hypothesis

  • Claims to explain the relationship between what the learner is exposed to (input) and the language acquisition.
  • Relates to acquisition – not learning
  • People acquire language best by understanding input that is slightly beyond their current level of competence (I+1 theory)
  • The ability to speak fluently cannot be taught directly, rather it emerges independently in time, after the learner has been exposed to large amounts of comprehensible input.

Just as child acquirers of a first language are provided with samples of ‘caretaker speech’ (via parents), rough tuned to their present level of understanding, so adult acquirers of a 2nd language are provided with simple codes that facilitate second language comprehension. One such code is ‘foreigner talk’ which refers to the speech native  speakers use to simplify communication with non-native speakers.  Foreigner talk is characterised by a slower rate of speech, repetition, yes/no instead of Wh questions and other messages that make messages more comprehensible.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

Krashen sees the learner’s emotional state or attitude as an adjustable filter that freely passes, impedes or blocks input and successful acquisition. A low affective filter is desirable since it blocks less of the input.  The hypothesis is built on research in 2nd language acquisition, which identified 3 kinds of affective variables.

  • Motivation – learners with high motivation generally do better
  • Self-confidence – learners with self-confidence and good self image tend to be more successful
  • Anxiety – low personal and classroom anxiety are more conducive to 2nd language acquisition.

The Natural Order Hypothesis

This states that the acquisition of grammatical structure proceeds in a predictable order. Grammar input should be graded with simple forms being taught first.  Errors are a sign of developmental processes during acquisition (but not during learning) and that similar errors occur in learners no matter what their mother tongue is.

Krashen and Terrell approach course organisation as follows:

  • Typical goals are: basic communication skills/basic personal communication skills/academic learning skills – listening and taking notes from a lecture.
  • They also state that ‘the purpose of a language course will vary according to the needs of the students and their particular interests’ (Krashen/Terrell, 1983)

Learner Role:

  • The learner is seen as an acquirer/processor of comprehensible input.
  • Learner is challenged by input that is slightly beyond their current level of ability.
  • In the pre-production stage learners participate in the language without having to communicate in the L2. For example they can act out physical commands, point to pictures etc.
  • In the early-production stage, learners respond to either-or questions, use single words or short phrases.
  • In the speech-emergent stage, learners involve themselves in role play and games, contribute personal information and opinions etc.
  • Learners are expected to participate in communication activities with other learners.  Although communication activities are seen to provide natural practice and create a sense of belonging in the group (and therefore lowers affective filters) they may fail to provide learners with well-formed and comprehensible input at the I+1 level.  Krashen and Terrel warned of these shortcomings but did not suggest any ways to improve this.

Teacher Role:

  • Teacher is provider of comprehensible input.  Class time is devoted primarily to providing input for acquisition.
  • The teacher should create a classroom atmosphere that is friendly and which there is a low affective filter to facilitate learning.
  • Teacher should choose  a rich mixture of activities, involving a variety of group sizes, content and contexts. Teacher is responsible for collecting materials which are in line with the learners needs and interests.

Activities and Procedures of the Natural Approach:

  • Start with TPR commands. Simple commands such as ‘stand up’, ‘turn around’, ‘put your hand on your head’ etc.
  • Introduce classroom terms and props into commands ‘pick up a pencil and put it on the desk’.
  • Use names of physical characteristics and clothing to identify the class by name.  The teacher uses context and the items themselves to make the meanings of key words clear; hair, long, short etc.  Then a student is described. ‘What is your name?; (selecting a student). ‘Class, look at Jane. She has long brown hair.  Her hair is long and brown.  Her hair is not short, it is long’. (Using mime and pointing to context to ensure comprehension.
  • Use visuals, magazine pictures to introduce new lexis and to continue with activities requiring only student names as response. The teacher introduces the pictures to the entire class at a time focusing usually on one single item or activity in the picture.  Teacher may introduce one to five new words while talking about the picture.  He then passes the picture to a particular student in the class.  the students’ task is to remember the name of the student with a particular picture.  For example, ‘Tom has the  picture of the house, John has the picture of the boat’ etc  Does Susan or Tom have the  picture of the house?’  Again, the students need only produce a name in the response.
  • Combine use of pictures with TPR,  ‘Jim find the picture of the girl with her dog and give it to the student with the pink shirt’.
  • Combine observations about the pictures with commands and conditionals, ‘if there is something blue in your picture, stand up’.
  • Using several pictures ask the students to point to the picture being described.  Picture 1 ‘there are several people in this picture. One is the father, the other a daughter. What are they doing? Cooking.  They are cooking a hamburger’ etc. etc.

All notes taken from Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Richards/Rodgers, Cambridge University Press