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The Natural Approach: What Is It?

by Vedat Kiymazarslan, 1995


The aim of this paper is to provide general -- but detailed -- information about one of the most recent and the most promising approaches to language teaching, the Natural Approach. Yet, I will not only introduce the very well-known facts about the approach but also strive to clarify the principles of the approach, which are often misinterpreted by language teachers and methodologists. Another important point is, of course, its applicability to foreign or second language classes. Accordingly, the application of the Natural Approach theory to language classes will be explained in detail.


The Natural Approach (NA) is a product of Stephen Krashen, an applied linguist at the University of Southern California and Tracy Terrell, a teacher of Spanish in California. Krashen's work on second language acquisition and Terrell's teaching experiences form the bases of the Natural Approach. The principles and practices of this new approach have been published in "The Natural Approach" (Krashen and Terrell, 1983). The book contains theoretical sections prepared by Krashen and sections on implementation and classroom procedures prepared mostly by Terrell. The most striking proposal of the NA theory is that adults can still acquire second languages and that the ability to 'pick up' languages does not disappear at puberty. Thus, Krashen's contribution to Chomsky's LAD proposition is that adults follow the same principles of Universal Grammar. The theory behind the NA implies that adults can acquire all but the phonological aspect of any foreign language, by using their ever-active LAD. What makes adults different from children is their abstract problem solving skills that make them consciously process the grammar of a foreign language. Therefore, adults have two paths to follow: Acquisition and learning. However, children have only one: Acquisition.

In their book, Krashen and Terrell refer to their method of picking up ability in another language directly without instruction in its grammar as 'the traditional approach'. They consider their approach as a traditional one whereas many methodologists consider Grammar Translation Method as the traditional method. For Krashen, even Grammar Translation Method is not as old and traditional as the method of acquiring a language in its natural environment, a method which has been used for hundreds of thousands of years.

The term 'natural' emphasizes that the principles behind the NA are believed to conform to the naturalistic principles found in successful second language acquisition. One may think that the Natural Approach and the Natural Method are similar. The Natural Method (or the Direct Method) and the Natural Approach differ in that the former lays more emphasis on teacher monologues, formal questions and answers, and error correction. Krashen and Terrell note that "the Natural Approach is in many ways the natural, direct method 'rediscovered'[and] it is similar to other communicative approaches being developed today". The Natural Approach, like TPR, is regarded as a comprehension-based approach because of its emphasis on initial delay(silent period) in the production of language. What is novel is that the NA focuses on exposure to input instead of grammar practice, and on emotional preparedness for acquisition to take place.


II.1. Theory of Language

Krashen regards 'communication' as the main function of language. The focus is on teaching communicative abilities. The superiority of 'meaning' is emphasized. Krashen and Terrell believe that a language is essentially its lexicon. They stress the importance of vocabulary and view language as a vehicle for 'communicating meanings' and 'messages'. According to Krashen, 'acquisition' can take place only when people comprehend messages in the TL. Briefly, the view of language that the Natural Approach presents consists of 'lexical items', 'structures' and 'messages'. The lexicon for both perception and production is considered critical in the organization and interpretation of messages. In Krashen's view, acquisition is the natural assimilation of language rules by using language for communication. This means that linguistic competence is achieved via 'input' containing structures at the 'interlanguage + 1' level (i +1); that is, via 'comprehensible input'.

II.2. Theory of Language Learning

(1) The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

Krashen, in his theory of second language acquisition (SLA)suggested that adults have two different ways of developing competence in second languages: Acquisition and learning. "There are two independent ways of developing ability in second languages. 'Acquisition' is a subconscious process identical in all important ways to the process children utilize in acquiring their first language, ... [and] 'learning' ..., [which is] a conscious process that results in 'knowing about' [the rules of] language" (Krashen 1985:1).

Krashen believes that the result of learning, learned competence (LC) functions as a monitor or editor. That is, while AC is responsible for our fluent production of sentences, LC makes correction on these sentences either before or after their production. This kind of conscious grammar correction, 'monitoring', occurs most typically in a grammar exam where the learner has enough time to focus on form and to make use of his conscious knowledge of grammar rules (LC) as an aid to 'acquired competence'. The way to develop learned competence is fairly easy: analyzing the grammar rules consciously and practising them through exercises. But what Acquisition / Learning Distinction Hypothesis predicts is that learning the grammar rules of a foreign/second language does not result in subconscious acquisition. In other words, what you consciously learn does not necessarily become subconsciously acquired through conscious practice, grammar exercises and the like. Krashen formulates this idea in his well-known statement that "learning does not became acquisition". It is at this point where Krashen receives major criticism.

(2) The Natural Order Hypothesis

According to the hypothesis, the acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predicted progression. Certain grammatical structures or morphemes are acquired before others in first language acquisition and there is a similar natural order in SLA. The average order of acquisition of grammatical morphemes for English as an 'acquired' language is given below:

-Ing   --------   Aux   ---------    Irregular    ------    Regular Past
Plural    ----->   Article    ---->    Past        ---------->  3rd Singular
Copula       --------------------------------   Possessive

The implication of natural order is not that second or foreign language teaching materials should be arranged in accordance with this sequence but that acquisition is subconscious and free from conscious intervention (Ellidokuzoglu, 1992).

(3) The Input Hypothesis

This hypothesis relates to acquisition, not to learning. Krashen claims that people acquire language best by understanding input that is a little beyond their present level of competence. Consequently, Krashen believes that 'comprehensible input' (that is, i + 1) should be provided. The 'input' should be relevant and 'not grammatically sequenced'. The 'input' should also be in sufficient quantity as Richards pointed out:

".. child acquirers of a first language are provided with samples of 'caretaker' speech, rough - tuned to their present level of understanding, ..[and] adult acquirers of a second language [should be] provided with simple codes that facilitate second language comprehension."
(Richards, J. 1986:133)

(4) The Monitor Hypothesis

As is mentioned, adult second language learners have two means for internalizing the target language. The first is 'acquisition' which is a subconscious and intuitive process of constructing the system of a language. The second means is a conscious learning process in which learners attend to form, figure out rules and are generally aware of their own process. The 'monitor' is an aspect of this second process. It edits and make alterations or corrections as they are consciously perceived. Krashen believes that 'fluency' in second language performance is due to 'what we have acquired', not 'what we have learned': Adults should do as much acquiring as possible for the purpose of achieving communicative fluency. Therefore, the monitor should have only a minor role in the process of gaining communicative competence. Similarly, Krashen suggests three conditions for its use: (1) there must be enough time; (2) the focus must be on form and not on meaning; (3) the learner must know the rule.

(5) The Affective Filter Hypothesis

The learner's emotional state, according to Krashen, is just like an adjustable filter which freely passes or hinders input necessary to acquisition. In other words, input must be achieved in low-anxiety contexts since acquirers with a low affective filter receive more input and interact with confidence. The filter is 'affective' because there are some factors which regulate its strength. These factors are self-confidence, motivation and anxiety state.



1. Application of the Hypotheses: In this part, we will try to sift through the practical value of the approach for foreign or second language classes by taking its theoretical bases into consideration.

i. The Acquisition-Learning Distinction

The first and the most useful hypothesis, the acquisition-learning hypothesis tells us that we should balance class time between acquisition activities and learning exercises. It is important to realize that students or any human being cannot both learn and acquire at the same time because one can focus on only one thing at a time, either on form or on meaning. Therefore, there must be a separation between acquisition and learning activities in FL classes and the relative weight of acquisition classes should be over that of learning classes.

The NA instructor does not expect students at the end of a particular course to have acquired a 'specific grammar point'. Instead s/he does expect them to display their comprehension. It is necessary and inevitable, as has been mentioned earlier, to employ two separated classes: Input and grammar classes (i.e., acquisition and learning classes). In input classes, students are given as much comprehensible input as possible. In grammar classes, however, grammar rules are presented deductively or inductively depending on the age of the students (also on whether they are field-independent or field-dependent). The role of grammar classes is to produce 'optimal monitor users' and to aid comprehension indirectly. Therefore, the core of the NA is acquisition activities which have a purpose other than conscious grammar exercises such as audiolingual drills and cognitive learning exercises.

ii. The Monitor Hypothesis

What is implied by the Monitor Hypothesis for FL classes is, therefore, to achieve optimal monitors. Students may monitor during written tasks (e.g., homework assignments)and preplanned speech, or to some extent during speech. Learned knowledge enables students to read and listen more so they acquire more. Especially in early stages, grammar instruction speeds up acquisition. This is one of the reasons why adults are faster than children in terms of the rate of achievement. However, the NA teacher wishes his students to use the monitor where appropriate.

iii. The Input Hypothesis

As for the application of the Input Hypothesis, the instructor should provide input that is roughly-tuned. The teacher should always send meaningful messages and 'must' create opportunities for students to access i+1 structures to understand and express meaning. For instance, the teacher can lay more emphasis on listening and reading comprehension activities. Extensive reading is often preferred because of ample amount of input provided. Outside reading is also helpful (e.g., graded readers, magazines and the like).

iv. The Natural Order Hypothesis

The Natural Approach teacher should be tolerant against errors. He uses a semantic syllabus for acquisition activities and grammatical syllabus for grammar lessons (i.e., for learning sessions). As is known "the grammatical syllabus assumes that we know the correct natural order of presentation and acquisition, we don't: what we have is information about a few structures in a few languages." (Krashen, 1983: 72). Therefore, the teacher will not organize the acquisition activities of the class about grammatical syllabi and only 'meaning' errors are to be corrected in a positive manner.

v. The Affective Filter Hypothesis

The application of this hypothesis would be that acquisition should be achieved in a low-anxiety environment. The teacher creates a comfortable atmosphere in the classroom by lowering the affective filter. There is no demand for early production speech and no radical concern for correctness in early stages of acquisition. This, of course, reduces the anxiety of students considerably. Our pedagogical goal in an FL class should, then, not only include providing comprehensible input but also creating an atmosphere that fosters a low affective filter.

2. The Syllabus

The syllabus underlying the Natural Approach is topical and situational. It is a semantic, or notional syllabus, simply "a series of topics that students will find interesting and the teacher can discuss in a comprehensible way" (Krashen, 1985:55). The focus of each classroom activity is organized by topic, not grammatical structures. What is more interesting is that Krashen and Terrell have not specified or suggested the functions which are believed to derive naturally from the topics and situations. Therefore, basic communication goals (both written and oral) are achieved mainly through topics and situations; and each topic and situation includes various language functions that the students will acquire.

As discussed earlier, a grammatical syllabus may be used in learning classes where learners are given conscious knowledge about the target language. Needless to say, the relative weight of acquisition activities is to be over that of learning activities. Similarly, practice of specific grammatical structures is not focused on in the above mentioned semantic syllabus.

3. Learning/Teaching Activities

Learners remain silent during the first stage. This does not mean they are inactive. What they do in this stage is to understand the teacher talk that focuses on objects in the classroom or on the content of pictures. Students are only expected to respond to teacher commands without having to say anything. The purpose of the beginning stage is not to make students perfect but to help them proceed to the next stage.

When students feel ready to produce speech, the teacher asks questions and elicit one word answers. This is the second stage where the teacher asks yes/no questions, either- or questions, and wh-questions that require single word utterances. Students are not expected to use a word actively until they have heard it many times. Pictures, charts, advertisements are utilized to proceed to the third stage where acquisition activities are emphasized (e.g., group work and whole class discussion).

The NA instructor uses techniques that are borrowed from other methods and adapted to meet the requirements of the NA theory. Among these techniques are TPR activities of Asher, Direct Method activities in which gesture and context are used to elicit questions and answers, and group work activities that are often used in Communicative Language Teaching. But, what makes the NA different is that every specific technique has a theoretical rationale. That is, the Natural Approach theory is so strong that within its framework classroom activities can be accounted for. This feature of the NA makes it superior to other methods like Communicative Language Teaching which lacks a sound theory of language learning.

4. Teacher Roles

We may speak of three crucial roles for the NA teacher. Firstly, the teacher is the primary source of input that is understandable to the learner. It is the teacher that attempts to maintain a constant flow of comprehensible input. If s/he maintains students' attention on key lexical items or uses context to help them, the students will 'naturally' be successful. Secondly, the teacher creates a friendly classroom atmosphere where there is a low affective affective filter. Thirdly, the teacher chooses the most effective materials and employs a rich mix of classroom activities.

5. Learner Roles

The language acquirer is regarded as a processor of comprehensible input. S/he is challenged by input that is a little beyond her/his present level of competence. S/he is expected to be able to assign meaning to this input through dynamic use of context and extralinguistic information. Acquirers' roles, in fact, vary according to their stage of linguistic development. Some of their roles are to make their own decisions on when to speak, what to speak about, and what linguistic expressions to use while speaking.


We are on the eve of a new paradigm shift in foreign language teaching methodology. The Communicative Approach or 'PPP' is no longer a dogmatically accepted best method. Its impact is about to fade away. Methodologists are in search of a successor of the CA. The Natural Approach with its strong learning theory and easily applicable techniques is the strongest nominee for the most common method of the 21st century.

Using our reasoning faculty, we can speed up the process of reaching the conclusion that the NA or comprehension-based methods are more efficient than grammar-based ones. Otherwise, we have to follow the footsteps of old-fashioned ELT literature which is preconditioned against the NA. Such a literature will most probably seek the successor of the Communicative Approach among production-based methods. If we are to follow this literature, then we are to accept losing another decade before arriving at comprehension-based methods.


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Ellidokuzoglu, H. 1991. Grammar Can Make a Difference. But How? TTR. Bogazici University.

Eubank, L. (ed.). 1991. Point Counterpoint: Universal Grammar in the Second Language. John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. 1994. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press.

Hyltenstam, K. & M. Pienemann. (eds). 1985. Modelling and Assesing Second Language Acquisition. Multilingual Matters.

Krashen, S. 1981.Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. and Terrel, T. 1983. The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. 1985.The Input Hypothesis. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. 1993.The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Laredo Publishing Company.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & M. Long. 1991. An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research. Longman.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge Universitiy Press.


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