5 Popular ESL Teaching Methods Every Teacher Should Know

By Johanna Kawasaki
January 22, 2021
EFL teacher working abroad with children.

There’s no single way to teach English and, in fact, there have been many popular approaches over the years. These are a few of the top ESL teaching methods used in the classroom today, including communicative language teaching (CLT) and total physical response (TPR). Learn more about these and other methods and how you can apply them to a real-life classroom in Bridge’s Master Certificate course.

Why learn ESL teaching methods?

There are many reasons why learning a few basic ESL teaching methods is a must for both new and experienced teachers. Here are some ways that learning the most popular methods of teaching ESL can help you as an English teacher:

  • Demonstrating knowledge of these ESL teaching methods and strategies makes you more marketable.
  • Discussing these strategies for teaching ESL students and using TEFL/TESOL buzzwords during an interview can improve your chances of getting hired.
  • Using a variety of methods in the ESL classroom makes you a more effective and engaging teacher.
  • Understanding pedagogy helps you design better ESL materials and lessons, as you can strategically select activities and use learning objectives that will benefit your students.

ESL teacher in Portugal

Teacher Nastassia reads with an ESL student in Portugal.


What are some popular ESL teaching methods?

Method #1: Direct method


For the direct method, all teaching is done in the target language, translations are not allowed in class, and the focus lies heavily on speaking instead of grammar. This makes the direct method a very student-centered strategy that has gained popularity in recent years.

Students are supposed to learn the target language naturally and instinctively, which is why the direct method is also called the “natural approach.” Mistakes are corrected as they happen in class, and teachers reinforce the correct usage of the language with praise.

Get more ideas for correcting students’ mistakes by taking Bridge’s 20-Hour Micro-credential course: Error Correction in the EFL Classroom.

Teen ESL conversation activity

Teens practice speaking English in teacher Richard Allen’s class in Vietnam.


Method #2: Communicative language teaching (CLT)


Communicative language teaching is perhaps the most popular approach among the methods of teaching ESL today. CLT emphasizes the students’ ability to communicate in real-life contexts, and students learn to make requests, accept offers, explain things, and express their feelings and preferences.

Since CLT focuses on teaching language through real-world assignments and problem-solving, it’s less concerned with grammar accuracy and instead focuses on fluency.

Promote communication and fluency in your classroom with these ESL speaking activities for adults.

Method #3: Task-/project-/inquiry-based learning


This teaching strategy for ESL students can sometimes be considered a part of CLT, but it heavily emphasizes the students’ independence and individuality. Inquiry-based learning is a modern approach that is becoming widely popular at schools all over the world. By asking questions and solving problems with the teacher as a mere learning facilitator, student motivation and participation in tasks and projects is thought to increase.

Sallie, Teaching Online with TPR

Online ESL teacher, Sallie, uses TPR, realia, and other strategies to motivate her students.


Method #4: Total physical response (TPR)


You may have heard of this teaching strategy for ESL before, but what exactly is TPR? Total physical response has become a very popular approach in which students react to the teacher with movement, such as miming, gesturing, or acting out the language.

For example, the teacher and students might make an exaggerated frown and pretend to cry when learning the word “sad.” TPR suggests that students learn the target language best through physical response rather than by analysis.

Method #5: An eclectic approach


Many teachers choose from the collection of humanistic approaches (TPR, for example) and communicative approaches (the direct method and CLT), as well as many other teaching strategies for ESL learners, and use what works best for them.

For example, a teacher who uses mostly the direct method may occasionally do a lot of grammar explanation when teaching a test preparation class, or a CLT advocate may borrow some aspects of the direct method or use TPR.

  • Pro Tip: A great way to combine or develop teaching methods is to frequently reflect on your teaching style by using a journal where you write down comments, note adjustments, and brainstorm how you can change certain methods or procedures if necessary.

The list of ESL teaching styles doesn’t have to end here! You can find your own favorite TEFL/TESOL method from among those listed above, combine several strategies for teaching your ESL students, or develop your own ESL teaching methods and techniques.

Delve deeper into these and other ESL teaching methods and techniques with the Bridge 120-Hour Master Certificate TEFL/TESOL course.