Grammar Translation in TEFL

How To Teach English

Lost in TranslationThe Grammar-Translation method (or GTM) was the most popular teaching method for over 100 years and it continues to be used even today despite many years of criticism.

Essentially the GTM involves simply translating English‏‎ into the mother tongue‏‎ of the students. Grammatical rules and paradigms are learned by rote.

It is most often used when dealing with written texts and the listening‏‎ and speaking‏‎ aspects of language learning are somewhat neglected.

An Example

At its simplest, suppose you are teaching a class of Italian students who are working with a new text. They come across the word mother-in-law which is new to them. As a teacher you might simply write up on the board

mother-in-law = suocera

And that would be it.

A more involved example would be if the class were unsure on when to use the Present Perfect Simple or Past Simple verb form. According to the system of Grammar-Translation you would give your entire explanation in Italian, making reference to the way in which Italian‏‎ grammar works so the class can compare English to their own mother tongue‏‎.


There is a lot of criticism against using GT in the class and it is generally accepted these days that it is counter-productive to use the students’ MT in the classroom. This is really something you should try and avoid as far as possible.

  • Referring the student’s MT is simply not necessary. Using examples, pictures and other non-verbal means of communication allow you to negotiate meaning without slipping back into the MT; and by doing all this in English you are giving your students more exposure to the target language because…
  • …the more exposure the students have to the target language‏‎, the better. The more they are obliged to communicate in the TL, the better. (The input should be one small step above the comprehensible level – it’s still understandable. But it makes them mentally stretch a bit.)
  • Using the MT in class is philosophically contradictory. You’re encouraging them to use the new language as much as possible, but you yourself slip back into their MT?
  • And simply put, researchers and teachers discovered that translating into the MT as a teaching method simply does not produce the kinds of results our students need. There is rarely any advantage that can be demonstrated by doing so.
  • As a teacher you need to be extremely proficient in the students’ mt in order to use this method; a fair number of TEFL teachers will be native English speakers who do not speak any other language to a high standard; this method is thus not for everyone.

Aside from this, the GT method is obviously not possible in multilingual classes where the students have many different MTs.

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