ESL Teaching Methods: Theoretical Orientations


There are many different types of approaches to take when teaching students English. The first approach we will cover in this post is Theoretical Orientations.

When looking at theoretical orientations you will notice that there are 4 general orientations that are part of the ESL approach:

  1. Cognitive
  2. Functional Communication
  3. Interpersonal Communication
  4. Structural


This orientation is based on the theory that learning, specifically that is applied to language learning, can be done cognitively through passing of information in different ways. In this theory, you teach each student differently depending on their cognitive abilities and what types of studying is most successful for each different student. This style fits each technique into a generalization about the language that can easily be understood and memorized by the student. This leads to better competence in the space, which ultimately leads to a better understanding of the subject and a higher performance rate.

Functional Communication:

This concept is loosely based on the theory of language for communication as well as language acquisition. Some teachers will call this a more natural approach, which is why it is so popular among second language teachers around the world. There are many different aspects of communication that can be put into the act of communicating, such as the structure of the language. This is all backed by the purpose of the communication. You will clearly teach a business person a different type of communication than you would a child and that is what this theory suggests. With this method, the teachers will be more worried about the involvement of the students and to what level they are understanding than the actual act of filling out tests. This method is very much personalized to each student and is much harder to scale via software.

Interpersonal Communication:

This theory is much more focused on the psychological pre-disposition of the student. As a whole, this theory takes more into account the things that enhance or slow down the learning process. This is a popular theory as a significant amount of teachers use this theory for younger children. The interaction between teachers and students is paramount for this theory. It is incredibly important to make sure your students understand and know what interpersonal communication is all about in the different languages. This can include hints of sarcasm as well as different body language and unspoken communication that may go along with the spoken communication of the second language. Social Psychology is a big part of this theory and the study of the subject can help you immensely when attempting to reach through to your ESL students.


Now down to the nitty-gritty. This theory involves the actual structure of the different parts of the language and how you as a teacher can actually teach it in a way that breaks down English structure as relative to the student’s native tongue. The better you are able to do this the easier it will be for the student to understand. This theory is often referred to as learning about a language because a large majority of the time will be spent learning grammar, punctuation, etc.