Essay Translation Approach

Teaching approaches: the grammar-translation method

By Tim Bowen

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the grammar-translation approach to language learning.


At the height of the Communicative Approach to language learning in the 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable in some quarters to deride so-called "old-fashioned" methods and, in particular, something broadly labelled "Grammar Translation". There were numerous reasons for this but principally it was felt that translation itself was an academic exercise rather than one which would actually help learners to use language, and an overt focus on grammar was to learn about the target language rather than to learn it.

As with many other methods and approaches, Grammar Translation tended to be referred to in the past tense as if it no longer existed and had died out to be replaced world-wide by the fun and motivation of the communicative classroom. If we examine the principal features of Grammar Translation, however, we will see that not only has it not disappeared but that many of its characteristics have been central to language teaching throughout the ages and are still valid today.

The Grammar Translation method embraces a wide range of approaches but, broadly speaking, foreign language study is seen as a mental discipline, the goal of which may be to read literature in its original form or simply to be a form of intellectual development. The basic approach is to analyze and study the grammatical rules of the language, usually in an order roughly matching the traditional order of the grammar of Latin, and then to practise manipulating grammatical structures through the means of translation both into and from the mother tongue.

The method is very much based on the written word and texts are widely in evidence. A typical approach would be to present the rules of a particular item of grammar, illustrate its use by including the item several times in a text, and practise using the item through writing sentences and translating it into the mother tongue. The text is often accompanied by a vocabulary list consisting of new lexical items used in the text together with the mother tongue translation. Accurate use of language items is central to this approach.

Generally speaking, the medium of instruction is the mother tongue, which is used to explain conceptual problems and to discuss the use of a particular grammatical structure. It all sounds rather dull but it can be argued that the Grammar Translation method has over the years had a remarkable success. Millions of people have successfully learnt foreign languages to a high degree of proficiency and, in numerous cases, without any contact whatsoever with native speakers of the language (as was the case in the former Soviet Union, for example).

There are certain types of learner who respond very positively to a grammatical syllabus as it can give them both a set of clear objectives and a clear sense of achievement. Other learners need the security of the mother tongue and the opportunity to relate grammatical structures to mother tongue equivalents. Above all, this type of approach can give learners a basic foundation upon which they can then build their communicative skills.

Applied wholesale of course, it can also be boring for many learners and a quick look at foreign language course books from the 1950s and 1960s, for example, will soon reveal the non-communicative nature of the language used. Using the more enlightened principles of the Communicative Approach, however, and combining these with the systematic approach of Grammar Translation, may well be the perfect combination for many learners. On the one hand they have motivating communicative activities that help to promote their fluency and, on the other, they gradually acquire a sound and accurate basis in the grammar of the language. This combined approach is reflected in many of the EFL course books currently being published and, amongst other things, suggests that the Grammar Translation method, far from being dead, is very much alive and kicking as we enter the 21st century.

Without a sound knowledge of the grammatical basis of the language it can be argued that the learner is in possession of nothing more than a selection of communicative phrases which are perfectly adequate for basic communication but which will be found wanting when the learner is required to perform any kind of sophisticated linguistic task. 

Approaches to Language Testing

1. Essay-Translation Approach
    A. Characteristics and Types of Tests
          i.   Referred to as the pre-scientific stage
          ii.  No special skill or expertise in testing is required
          iii. Usually consist of essay writing, translation and grammatical analysis.
          iv. Heavy on literary and cultural bias.
          v.  Public examinations resulting from the tests sometimes have an oral component at the upper intermediate and advance level.
    B. Strength
          i.   Easy to follow using subjective judgment
          ii.  Maybe use for any level of examinees.
          iii. Model can be easily modified based on the essentials of the tests.
    C. Weakness
          i. Subjective judgment tends to be biased
          ii. Heavy literary and cultural bias.

2. Structuralist Approach
    A. Characteristics and Types of Tests
          i.   Primarily concerned with systematic acquisition of a set of habits.
          ii.  Involves structural linguistics which stresses the importance of constructive analysis and the need to identify and measure the learner mastery of the separate elements of the target language ?phonology, vocabulary and grammar.
          iii. Listening, speaking, reading and writing are done in separate testing.
          iv. Uses psychometric approach to measurement with its emphasis on reliability and objectivity.
    B. Strengths
          i. Objective
          ii. Other forms of tests can be covered in the test in a short time
          iii. Can help students find their strengths and weaknesses in every skill they study.
    C. Weaknesses
          i. Complicated for teachers in questionnaire preparation
          ii.  Measures non-integrated skills more than integrated skills.

3. Integrative Approach
   A. Characteristics and Types
         i. Known as language in context test and primarily concerned with total communicative effect of discourse.
         ii. Concerned with global view of proficiency.
         iii. Involves functional language but does not uses functional language
         iv. Uses cloze test, dictation, oral interview, translation and essay writing.
  B. Strength
         i. Approach to meaning and the total communicative effect of discourse are very helpful to students
         ii. Can view students?proficiency with a global perspective.
         iii. Cloze test used in this approach measures the reader ability to decode interrupted messages by using available contextual clues.
         iv. Uses dictation test to measure students?listening comprehension skills.
  C. Weaknesses
         This type of approach does not acknowledge the importance of measuring the individual skills based on students?need such as writing only, speaking only, etc.

4. Communicative Approach
    A. Characteristics and Types
        i. Concerned primarily with how language is used in communication
        ii. Emphasizes on the exclusion of language usage.
        iii. Measures language skills in communicative tests based on divisibility hypothesis.
        iv. Content  should be relevant for a particular group of examinees and the tasks set should relate to real-life situation        v. Introduces qualitative modes of assessment

   B. Strengths
        i.   Measures integrated skills of students
        ii.  Prepares students in real life communication problems
        iii. Measures all language skills (speaking, reading, listening, writing)
        iv. Detailed statements of each performance level serve to increase the reliability of the scoring by enabling the examiner to make decisions according to carefully drawn-up and well-established criteria.
   C. Weaknesses
        i. Does not emphasize learning structural grammar and expects examinees mastery of the grammar of a language
        ii. Cultural bias affects the reliability of the tests being administered.
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