What are the educational theories behind different ESL teaching methods?

Within the field of English language teaching there are many different teaching methods that are used to varying degrees throughout the world. But how are they shaped by the wide range of educational theories that exist? Let’s dive in.


Overview: Behaviorism emphasizes observable behaviors and external stimuli.

Application in ESL: Focuses on repetition, drills, and conditioning to reinforce language patterns and vocabulary.

Teaching Method: Audio-lingual method employs dialogues, pattern drills, and imitation exercises to promote automatic responses.

The theory of behaviorism is most closely associated with the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner believed that learning is a result of conditioning and reinforcement, emphasizing observable behaviors and external stimuli.

Cognitive Theory

Overview: Cognitive theory explores mental processes, memory, and information processing.

Application in ESL: Recognizes learners' active engagement in constructing meaning and knowledge.

Teaching Method: Communicative approach encourages meaningful communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking through real-life language use.

The cognitive theory is often attributed to the influential work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget's theory focuses on the cognitive development of individuals, highlighting the role of assimilation, accommodation, and stages of development. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory emphasizes the importance of social interactions and the role of culture in cognitive development.


Overview: Constructivism emphasizes learners' active construction of knowledge through experiences and interactions.

Application in ESL: Emphasizes authentic and interactive learning experiences that promote language acquisition.

Teaching Method: Task-based learning encourages learners to complete meaningful tasks that require language use, fostering autonomy and collaboration.

The theory of constructivism is associated with the work of several prominent educators, including Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner. Piaget's constructivist theory emphasizes the active construction of knowledge by learners, while Vygotsky's sociocultural theory highlights the social and cultural aspects of learning. Bruner's constructivist approach emphasizes the importance of scaffolding and the role of language in knowledge construction.

Socio-cultural Theory

Overview: Socio-cultural theory focuses on the social and cultural contexts that shape learning.

Application in ESL: Recognizes the importance of cultural and social interactions in language development.

Teaching Method: Collaborative learning activities, group work, and cultural exchanges enhance language learning and intercultural competence.

Socio-cultural Theory: The socio-cultural theory is primarily associated with the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky proposed that learning is a social process that occurs through interactions with others, and cultural factors play a crucial role in shaping cognition and language development.


Overview: Humanism emphasizes learners' personal growth, self-directedness, and intrinsic motivation.

Application in ESL: Focuses on the holistic development of learners, fostering their self-esteem and autonomy. Teaching Method: Learner-centered approaches, such as the Silent Way or Suggestopedia, promote self-discovery, creativity, and personal expression.

Humanism: Humanism in education is closely associated with the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Carl Rogers emphasized the importance of learner-centered approaches, focusing on the individual's self-actualization, personal growth, and intrinsic motivation. Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory highlights the importance of fulfilling basic psychological and self-actualization needs for optimal learning.

Multiple Intelligences

Overview: Multiple intelligences theory recognizes diverse forms of intelligence beyond linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities.

Application in ESL: Tailors instruction to learners' individual strengths and preferences.

Teaching Method: Differentiated instruction and varied learning activities address learners' multiple intelligences, fostering engagement and motivation.

Multiple Intelligences: The theory of multiple intelligences was introduced by Howard Gardner. Gardner proposed that intelligence encompasses various modalities beyond traditional measures of intelligence, such as linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities. According to Gardner, individuals possess different forms of intelligence, including visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential intelligence.


Educational theories provide a theoretical framework that informs ESL teaching methods, allowing educators to design effective language learning experiences. By considering diverse educational theories such as behaviorism, cognitive theory, constructivism, socio-cultural theory, humanism, and multiple intelligences theory, ESL instructors can create dynamic and inclusive classrooms that cater to learners' needs and preferences. Combining elements from various theories, teachers can adopt an eclectic approach, adapting their methods to suit the diverse learning styles, cultural backgrounds, and individual abilities of ESL learners. Ultimately, an informed and flexible approach to ESL instruction enhances the language acquisition process, empowering learners to become confident and proficient users of English.