Grammar Translation


This method is also known under the names Prussian, Classical or Traditional. It was called Prussian, because it began in Prussia at the end of the eighteenth century as the favoured methodology of the Prussian Gymnasien, after their expansion in the early years of the nineteenth century. It got the name Classical because it was developed on the methodology of teaching classical languages Latin and Greek, which were meant to promote intellectuality through 'mental gymnastics'. The Classical Method of teaching Latin and Greek focused on learning grammatical rules, memorization of vocabulary and of various declensions and conjugations, translation of texts, doing written exercises. The language was not taught for oral/aural communication, but in order to gain reading proficiency, and help students read and appreciate literature. This method was adopted as the chief means for teaching foreign languages in educational institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth century (Brown, 1987). In short, the object of the method was "to know everything about something rather than the thing itself." (W. H. D. Rouse).

Grammar-Translation in its modified forms has been dominating European and foreign language teaching up to now, and it continues to be widely used in some parts of the world.


The Grammar-Translation method has no theory behind it. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it or those attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory. (Richards and Rodgers, 1995). Since the eighteenth century, the goal of the method has been to acquire a reading knowledge of foreign languages by studying grammar and applying this knowledge to the interpretation of texts with the use of a dictionary. In addition, it has been believed that studying a foreign language provides students with good mental exercise, which helps develop their mind (Howatt, 1995; Larsen-Freeman, 1986). The ability to communicate in the target language is not a goal.


1) Deductive teaching of grammar: The detailed analysis of a grammar rule is provided and the rule is illustrated. The rules are memorized, together with verb conjugations and other grammatical paradigms. This knowledge is applied through the task of translating sentences in and out of the target language. Students are made conscious of the grammatical rules of the target language. The same goes for teaching morphology and word-building.

2) Meticulous standards of accuracy and focus on form: Errors are intolerable, and are immediately corrected by the teacher. The correct answer must be full and accurate. If the student doesn't know it, the teacher supplies him/her with the correct answer.

3) Focus on the sentence: As a rule grammatical structures and vocabulary are practised through translation of separate sentences. Originally this was meant to facilitate language learning and grammar analysis instead of using longer texts.

4) Bottom-up approach to language analysis: Letters and sounds are learned before words, words before sentences.

5) Lexicon equivalency of the native and target language: It is believed to be possible to supply all target language words with their native language equivalents.

6) Emphasis on reading and writing: Literary language is considered superior to spoken language and is therefore the language students study.

7) Focus on literature and the fine arts as the main components of the target culture: The target culture is viewed as consisting of literature and the fine arts.

8) Use of the student's native language as the medium of instruction: Explanation of linguistic phenomena is provided in the native language. Students use the mother tongue terminology to report memorised rules.


Grammar-translation textbooks are graded and present new grammar points one by one in an organized sequence. The general goal is to teach grammar in an organized and systematic way. The textbook is accompanied by detailed grammar explanation. Besides, the textbook would provide the student with numerous exceptions from the rule, since the method is obsessed with exception-hunting. The method is founded on the supremacy of the sentence and the emphasis on the accuracy of translation of a sentence into the foreign language from the native language and vice versa. The content is determined by passages excerpted from some target language literature or some teacher-written texts, which include particular grammar rules and vocabulary to be studied in the unit. Vocabulary is chosen from the texts meant for reading and much of it is taught in the form of isolated words through bilingual word lists, dictionary study, and memorization. Evaluation is accomplished by means of written tests, in which students are requested to translate from their native language to the target language, or vice versa. Such tests are easy to construct and can be objectively scored. Another form of evaluation is answering comprehension questions or giving a precise translation of the reading passage.

Teacher and learner roles are very traditional:the teacher is the authority who knows every correct answer and who has the right to interrupt the student any time for the sake of error correction, which is one of the ways to keep up discipline in the classroom and maintain the teacher's authority.


Most of the interaction is from the teacher to students: There is little student initiation and little student-student interaction. Most of the teacher-learner interaction takes place in the form of display questions i.e., the teacher knows the correct answer beforehand. (Display questions as opposed to genuine questions i.e. when there is no predetermined answer to the asked question).


1) Translation of a literary passage from the target language into the mother tongue in the written or spoken form: The reading passage focuses the student's attention on vocabulary and grammatical structures that are studied in subsequent lessons.

2) Reading comprehension questions: Each text is accompanied by comprehension questions, which can be roughly divided into three groups: (1) explicit which ask for information contained within the reading passage, (2) implicit which demand answers not contained in the passage and in order to answer which students have to make inferences based on their understanding of the passage and (3) applied which require students to relate the passage to their own experience.

3) Memorization: Students are given lists of target language vocabulary and their native language equivalents and are asked to memorize them. Grammatical rules and grammatical paradigms are also subject to memorization.

4) Deductive application of a rule: After a detailed explanation of a rule and analyzing examples and exceptions students are asked to apply it while translating sentences in and out of the target language.

5) Use words in sentences or answer the questions that contain new words (deductive vocabulary teaching): In order to show that students understand the meaning and use of a new vocabulary item, they make up sentences in which they use new words or answer the question with a new word.

6) Drawing analogy between the target and native languages: Learning is facilitated through attention to similarities between the two languages, e.g., students are taught to recognize cognates by learning the spelling or sound patterns that correspond between the languages, e.g., suffixes -tion in English and -ция in Russian.

7) Fill-in-the-blanks: Students fill in the blanks with new vocabulary items or with items of a particular grammar type such as prepositions, articles, pronouns, or verbs in different tenses.

8) Antonyms/Synonyms: Students are asked to find synonyms or antonyms for a particular set of words in the reading passage or match a word with its synonym/antonym.

9) Parsing: Students are asked to examine parts of the sentence in order to work out subject, predicate, modifiers, type of the clause, etc.

10) Transformation: Students transform affirmative sentences into interrogative or negative, put questions to words in italics.

Questions to ponder

Which principles of Grammar-Translation do you agree with and follow in your own teaching?

How would you explain the rationale behind them?

How much is it necessary to know about the language in order to use it?

Can you think of any other way to teach grammar besides presenting the rule?

Which techniques of Grammar-Translation do you employ in your classroom? How effective are they? What is your students' reaction to them? Do they look bored and frustrated, or enthusiastic and interested?

Have you ever come across students, "victims" of Grammar-Translation? Who will do any grammar test but won't say a word? Who will rack their brains forever in an attempt to figure out the correct answer to a very simple question? Who will answer first in their native language, and then translate it?

How many grammatical rules can you formulate yourself as a teacher? E.g. what rule is it: Have you got any chalk? Do you like grammar? You should have done it yesterday. I would like to have seen him again. How many grammatical terms did you use to explain these rules?

Is it possible to describe every grammar phenomenon?

Do you know many grammar rules of your native language? How often do you refer to them to produce a correct sentence? Do you ever make mistakes while speaking your native language? If you do, do you get corrected by anybody?

Do you believe that one can find a native language equivalent for every word in the target language?

Should culture be viewed as consisting of literature and the fine arts? What other components of culture can you think of?

In what educational setting would Grammar-Translation completely justify itself?

How would you explain the fact that Grammar-Translation is so popular though "it is remembered with distaste by thousands of school learners, for whom foreign language learning meant a tedious experience of memorizing endless lists of unusable grammar rules and vocabulary and attempting to produce perfect translations of stilted or literary prose?

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