The natural approach
In 1977, Tracy Terrell, a Californian Spanish teacher, developed a new philosophy of teaching, which he called the Natural Approach. At first, this approach was tested only in Spanish classes, but shortly after it was introduced in primary schools and subsequently in higher grades. At the same time Terrell joined forces with Krashen, a linguist at the University of Southern California, and together they developed the principles and activities of the natural approach, described in their book “The Natural Approach” published in 1983.
Krashen and Terrel consider communication as a primary function of language, and their approach is focused mainly on teaching communication skills; they define their natural approach as an example of communicative approach. According to Krashen and Terrel the main problem of the other methods is that they focus on the grammatical component, rather than focusing on the nature of language itself.
The language is seen as a vehicle for communicating meanings and messages.
They stress the importance that “acquisition takes place only when people understand the message in the language they are learning,” 18.
Krashen had devised the theory of input, which is fundamental in this path. He proposes a model consisting of five hypotheses. It is a model that Krashen drew up in 1977 and to which he made minor changes before publishing the final version in 1985. In this section we will describe it briefly.
The fundamental hypothesis of the researcher is that there are two essentially different ways to learn a language: through acquisition and learning19 .
Students during an English lesson
For Krashen it is easier to learn a language in a spontaneous and unconscious way almost while not paying attention – as it happens with children who are learning both their mother tongue and a second language. The children use both languages without pausing to explicitly consider grammar rules, which are in fact acquired unconsciously. Learning, however, is a conscious process, that explicitly addresses the linguistic form.
The second hypothesis is closely related to the first. For Krashen the internal factor is particularly important and should be constantly monitored.
The third hypothesis is nothing more than a summary of the many studies that have shown that the acquisition of grammar rules of the second language are learned in a precise order. It is important to notice that according to Krashen the order applies when rules are acquired, or learned, unconsciously; if they are learned, and applied consciously with the monitor, it is possible that the student might not learn them in the natural order.
The fourth hypothesis is that the input should always be comprehensible. For Krashen, the only real way to gain knowledge is through the constant exposure to comprehensible inputs.
The fifth hypothesis is that of the “affective filter”: this theory explains why students exposed to the same amount of comprehensible inputs learn at different paces. According to Krashen, comprehensible input is not all we are exposed to when learning a language. There are other factors that affect the learning process and one of them is a “filter” that increases or diminishes learning speed based on affective factors, such as the desire to integrate into the new culture, good relations with the natives and their language in general, the levels of anxiety, as well as self-esteem and security.
The natural approach is a method designed for beginners and has the purpose of helping them in the immediate. The principles established by this approach are applicable in many situations, they always change according to the specific objectives and the needs of the students. Krashen and Terrel believe it is very important to communicate with the students and know what they expect from the second language.
The professor has three main roles in the classroom:
First, the teacher is the primary source that generates understandable inputs for the students.
– Second, the teacher must create an interesting atmosphere, fun but with a few filters in order to assure affective learning. The professor shouldn’t ask the students to speak until they feel ready, and should find material of high interest for the students.
– Third, the teacher must choose and orchestrate a mix of activities to happen during lessons. The teacher is responsible for choosing the material and also to use it. According to Krashen and Terrel these materials have to be helpful and interesting to the students.
The natural approach can be defined by one concept: students should not try to learn the language in the most ordinary way, since they can lose interest in the activities regarding mere communication. Students can decide when to speak, what to say and what linguistic expressions to use during their speeches.
Students have four types of responsibility during the lesson:
1. Provide information on the specific objectives and focus on topics and situations according to their needs.
2. Take an active role to ensure the comprehensibility of input. They will learn how to manage and use the main techniques of conversation to adjust the input.
3. Deciding when and how to start producing talking.
4. The exercises of learning, such as those of grammar, must be part of the program, and together with the teacher the students must decide how much time to devote and how to correct them.
It is expected that students participate in communicate with each other.
Among the main activities carried out in class, we will find those associated with common classroom materials, such as books, photographs, plans, brochures, maps, and so on. The use of these materials will depend on the level and the age of the students.