An ELT Glossary : The Direct Method

The Direct Method (also sometimes called the Berlitz Method, as it was adopted by the Berlitz chain of language schools, and also the Reform ) emerged in the early 20th century as a reaction to the Grammar-Translation method.  Grammar Translation was criticised by advocates of the Direct Method as being too analytic and "intellectual" and as teaching the learners about the language rather than how to use it. The Direct Method was based on the idea that an L2 should be acquired in the same way as the L1 - by direct association of meaning with language and without mediation of the mother tongue, which would be likely to lead the learner into error caused by L1 interference.  It therefore proposed that the learner should be "immersed" in the language in the same way as a child learning its  first language. Teaching was carried out exclusively in the target language, with the teacher using action and realia to demonstrate meaning : This is a pen. It's a red pen. This is a pen. It's a green pen. The red pen is on the table. The green pen is on the chair.
This would then be practised using question and answer sequences :
T: What's this?
S: It's a pen.
T: Is it a green pen?
S: No it's a red pen.
T: Is it on the chair?
S: No it's on the table.
The primary focus was on speaking and listening,  and grammar was  taught inductively but "unconsciously" - ie learners were expected to assimilate the rules without them being made explicit but just by simple exposure (as a child learning its first language does). 
Criticisms of the Direct Method?
  • The language presented was contextualised in the "here and now" as in the examples above, but there was no communicative context or focus on the communicative function of what was taught. 
  • L2 learners are generally not young children but older learners who have acquired analytic skills. The inclusion of explicit rules in the teaching sequence can therefore be useful, as can...
  • ... the use of the L1, which can often be the quickest and most effective way to clarify or check meaning/use and can be seen as a "natural" strategy when learning - how often have tyou tied youself in knots trying to explain a word in English, only to hear the first learner who understand say Oh- (the word in the L1)

Useful further reading
Ludescher, F.  The Direct Method
Thornbury, S. M is for Mother Tongue