The Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching

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Few language teachers in the 1990s are familiar with the terms Oral Approach or Situational Language Teaching, which refer to an approach to language teaching developed by British applied linguists from the 1930s to the 1960s. Even though neither term is commonly used today, the impact of the Oral Approach has been long lasting, and it has shaped the design of many widely used EFUESL textbooks and courses, including many still being used today.
One of the most successful ESL courses of recent times, Streamline English (Hartley and Viney 1979), reflects the classic principles of Situational Language Teaching, as do many other widely used series (e.g., Access to English, Coles and Lord 1975; Kernel Lessons Plus, O’Neill 1973; and many of L. G. Alexander’s widely used textbooks, e.g., Alexander 1967). As a recent British methodology text states, “This method is widely used at the time of writing and a very large number of textbooks are based on it” (Hubbard et al. 1983: 36). It is important therefore to understand the principles and practices of the Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching.


The origins of this approach began with the work of British applied linguists in the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning at this time, a number of outstanding applied linguists developed the basis for a principled approach to methodology in language teaching. Two of the leaders in this movement were Harold Palmer and A. S. Hornby, two of the most prominent figures in British twentieth-century language teaching. Both were familiar with the work of such linguists as Otto Jespersen and Daniel Jones, as well as with the Direct Method. What they attempted was to develop a more scientific foundation for an oral approach to teaching English than was evidenced in the Direct Method. The result was a systematic study of the principles and procedures that could be applied to the selection and organization of the content of a language course (Palmer 1917, 1921).

Vocabulary control

One of the first aspects of method design to receive attention was the role of vocabulary. In the 1920s and 1930s several large-scale investigations of foreign language vocabulary were undertaken. The impetus for this research came from two quarters. First, there was a general consensus among language teaching specialists, such as Palmer, that vocabulary was one of the most important aspects of foreign language learning. A second influence was the increased emphasis on reading skills as the goal of foreign language study in some countries.

Grammar control

A number of pedagogically motivated descriptions of English grammar were undertaken including A Grammar of Spoken English on a Strictly Phonetic Basis (Palmer and Blandford 1939), A Handbook of English Grammar (Zandvoort 1945), and Hornby’s Guide to Patterns and Usage in English (1954), which became a standard reference source of basic English sentence patterns for textbook writers.

The Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching

The Oral Approach was the accepted British approach to English language teaching by the 1950s. It is described in the standard methodology textbooks of the period, such as French (1948-50), Gurrey (19551, Frisby (1957), and Billows (1961). lts principles are seen m Hornby s famous Oxford Progressive English Course for Adult Learners (1954-6) and in many other more recent textbooks. One of the most active proponents of the Oral Approach in the sixties was the Australian George Pittman.
The main characteristics of the approach were as follows:
1. Language teaching begins with the spoken language. Material is taught orally before it is presented in written form.
2. The target language is the language of the classroom. 
3. New language points are introduced and practiced situationally.
4. Vocabulary selection procedures are followed to ensure that an essential general service vocabulary is covered.
5. Items of grammar are graded following the principle that simple forms should be taught before complex ones. 
6. Reading and writing are introduced once a sufficient lexical and grammatical basis is established.


Theory of language

The theory of language underlying Situational Language Teaching can be characterized as a type of British “structuralism.” Speech was regarded as the basis of language, and structure was viewed as being at the heart of speaking ability. Palmer, Hornby, and other British applied linguists had prepared pedagogical descriptions of the basic grammatical structures of English, and these were to be followed in developing methodology.

Theory of learning

The theory of learning underlying Situational Language Teaching is a type of behaviorist habit-learning theory. It address primarily the processes rather than he conditions of learning. Frisby, for example, cites Palmer’s views as authoritative:
As Palmer has pointed out, there are three processes in learning a language -receiving the knowledge or materials, fixing it in the memory by repetition, and using it in actual practice until it becomes a personal skill. (1957: 136)



The objectives of the Situational Language Teaching method are to teach a practical command of the four basic skills of language, goals it shares with most methods of language teaching. But the skills are approached through structure. Accuracy in both pronunciation and grammar is regarded as crucial, and errors are to be avoided at all costs. Automatic control of basic structures and sentence patterns is fundamental to reading and writing skill, and this is achieved through speech work. before our pupil read new structures and new vocabulary, we shall teach orally both the new structure and new vocabulary”. (Pittman, 1963: 186).

The syllabus

Basic to the teaching of English in Situational Language Teaching is a structural syllabus and a word list. A structural syllabus is a list of the basic structures and sentence patterns of English, arranged according to their order of presentation. In Situational Language Teaching, structures are always taught within sentences, and vocabulary is chosen according to how well it enables sentence patterns to be taught.
The syllabus was not therefore a situational syllabus in the sense that this term is sometimes used (i.e., a list of situations and the language associated with them). Rather, situation refers to the manner of presenting and practicing sentence patterns, as we shall see later.

Types of learning and teaching activities

Situational Language Teaching employs a situational approach to presenting new sentence patterns and a drill-based manner of practicing them. The practice techniques employed generally consist of guided repetition and substitution activities, including chorus repetition, dictation, drills, and controlled oral-based reading and writing tasks. Other oral-practice techniques are sometimes used, including pair practice and group work.

Learner roles

In the initial stages of learning, the learner is required simply to listen and repeat what the teacher says and to respond to questions and commands. The learner has no control over the content of learning and is often regarded as likely to succumb to undesirable behaviors unless skillfully manipulated by the teacher. For example, the learner might lapse into faulty grammar or pronunciation, forget what has been taught, or fail to respond quickly enough ; incorrect habits are to be avoided at all costs (see Pittman 1963).

Teacher roles

The teacher’s function is threefold. In the presentation stage of the lesson, the teacher serves as a model, setting up situation~ in which the need for the target structure is created and then modeling the new structure for students to repeat. Then the teacher “becomes more like the skillful conductor of an orchestra, drawing the music out of the performers” (Byrne 1976: 2). The teacher is required to be a skillful manipulator, using questions, commands, and other cues to elicit CO ITC(‘” sentences from the learners. Lessons are hence teacher directed, and the teacher sets the pace.
During the practice phase of the lesson, students are given more of an opportunity to use the language in less controlled Situations, but the teacher is ever on the lookout for grammatical and structural errors that can form the basis of subsequent lessons. Organizing review is a primary task for the teacher according to Pittman (1963), who summarizes the teacher’s responsibilities as dealing with
1. timing;
2. oral practice, to support the textbook structures;
3. revision [i.e., review};
4. adjustment to special needs of individuals;
5. testing; ..
6. developing language activities other than those anslI1g from the textbook. (Pittman 1963: 177-8)
The teacher is essential to the success of the method, since the textbook is able only to describe activities for the teacher to carry out in class.

The role of instructional materials

Situational Language Teaching is dependent upon both a textbook and visual aids. The textbook contains tightly organized lessons planned around different grammatical structures. Visual aids may be produced by the teacher or may be commercially produced; they consist of wall charts, flashcards, pictures, stick figures, and so on. The Visual element together with a carefully graded grammatical syllabus is a crucial aspect of Situational Language Teaching, hence the importance of the textbook. in principle, however, the textbook should be used “only as a guide to t he learning process. The teacher is expected to be the master of his text book” (Pittman 1963: 176).


Davies et al. likewise give detailed information about teaching procedures to be used with Situational Language Teaching. The sequence of activities they propose consists of:
1. Listening practice in which the teacher obtains his student’s attention and repeats an example of the patterns or a word in isolation clearly, several times, probably saying it slowly at least once (where . .. is … the . .. pen?), separating the words.
2. Choral imitation in which students all together or in large groups repeat what the teacher has said. This works best if the teacher gives a clear in traction like “Repeat,” or “Everybody” and hand signals to mark time and stress.
3. Individual imitation in which the teacher asks several individual students to repeat the model he has given in order to check their pronunciation.
4. Isolation, in which the teacher isolates sounds, words or groups of words which cause trouble and goes through techniques 1-3 with them before replacing them in context.
5. Building up to a new model, in which the teacher gets students to. ask and answer questions using patterns they already know in order to bring about the information necessary to introduce the new model.
6. Elicitation, in which the teacher, using mime, prompt words, gestures, etc., gets students to ask questions, make statements, or give new examples of the pattern. 
7. Substitution drilling, in which the teacher uses cue words (words, pictures, numbers, names, etc.) to get individual students to mix the examples of the new patterns.
8. Question-answer drilling, in which the teacher gets one student to ask to question and another to answer until most students in the class have practiced asking and answering the new question form.
9. Correction in which the teacher indicates by shaking his head, repeating the error, etc. , that there is a mistake and invites the student or a different student” to correct it. Where possible the teacher does not simply correct the mistake himself. He gets students to correct themselves so they will be encouraged to listen to each other carefully. (Davies et al. 1975: 6-7)


Procedures associated with Situational Language Teaching in the fifties and sixties are an extension and further development of well-established techniques advocated by proponents of the earlier Oral Approach in the British school of language teaching. They continue to be part of the standard set of procedures advocated in many current British methodology texts (e.g., Hubbard et al. 1983), and as we noted above, textbooks written according to the principles of Situational Language Teaching continue to be widely used in many parts of the world. In the mid-sixties, however, the view of language, language learning, and language teaching underlying Situational Language Teaching was called into question. We discuss this reaction and how it led to Communicative Language Teaching. But because the principles of Situational Language Teaching, with its strong emphasis on oral practice, grammar, and sentence patterns, conform to the intuitions of many practically oriented classroom teachers, it continues to be widely used in the 1980s.
Richards, Jack C & Theodore S. Rodgers. (1986). Approaches and Methods In Language Teaching: A description and analysis. UK: Cambridge University Press.

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