In recent years, the purely “structural” approach to language teaching has been criticized, as it tends to produce students who, despite having the ability to produce structurally accurate language, are generally deficient in their ability to use the language and understand its use in real communication.

What is the “structural” approach to language teaching?  If your classroom is full of students that memorize vocabulary and grammar rules through repetition and rote learning, and are corrected for even the smallest mistake whilst speaking or writing English, then you are a champion of the structural teaching approach.  No doubt your students are learning a lot of English, but how effective and how enjoyable is this process?

An approach to language teaching has been developed which attempts to overcome the weaknesses of the “structural approach” (which incidentally is the kind of teaching methodology that tends to prevail in Asian public schools).  The new approach is based on viewing language as a combination of:

  1. a)Linguistic Structures
  2. b)Situational Settings
  3. c)Communicative Acts

This is known as the “communicative approach” to language teaching.  Communication is not simply a matter of what is said (structure/lexis), but where it is said, by whom, when and why it is said.  In short, this is basically the “communicative function” or “purpose” of language.

The PPP Approach to Language Teaching

 The “Three Ps” approach to Language Teaching is the most common modern methodology employed by professional schools around the world.   It is a strong feature of the renowned CELTA certification and other TEFL qualifications offered especially in the United Kingdom.

While this approach is generally geared toward adult learners, most of the principles involved are also essential to lessons for children (click on the “Young Learners” link above for more information).  It is very important to understand what “Presentation”, “Practice” and “Production” really are, and how they work in combination to create effective communicative language learning.

Presentation is the beginning or introduction to learning language, and Production is the culmination of the learning process, where a learner has become a “user” of the language as opposed to a “student” of the language.  Practice is the process that facilitates progress from the initial stage through to the final one.

To explain the process in brief, the beginning of a lesson involves the introduction of the new language in a conceptual way in combination with some kind of real (or at least “realistic feeling”) situation.  When this is understood, the students are provided with a linguistic “model” to apply to the concept they have recognized.  With this “model” in mind, the students practice the new language by means of various “controlled” activities.  After sufficient practice, the students move into some kind of “productive” activity, where a situation calls for the language to be used naturally without correction or control.

In general, for communicative language learning to be most effective, the three stages need to occur and they must flow easily from one stage to the next.


This is the first (and perhaps most crucial) stage to the language learning process, as it usually has a profound influence on the stages that follow and governs whether those stages are effective or not.

Presentation involves the building of a situation requiring natural and logical use of the new language.  When the “situation” is recognized and understood by the students, they will then start instinctively building a conceptual understanding of the meaning behind the new language, and why it will be   relevant and useful to them.  When the situation surrounding the new language and the conceptual meaning of it has been achieved, the new language should be introduced by means of a linguistic “model”.  It is this model that the students will go on to practice and hopefully achieve naturally without help during a productive activity.

An important aspect of introducing the situation requiring and concept underlying new language is to build them up using whatever English the students have already learned or have some access to.  At lower levels, pictures and body language are typical ways of presenting new language.  As students progress, dialogues and text can also be used.

There are a variety of ways in which new language items may be presented but most Presentations should have at least some of the following features: meaningful, memorable and realistic examples; logical connection; context; clear models; sufficient meaningful repetition; “staging” and “fixing”; briefness and recycling.


The Practice stage is the best known to teachers irrespective of their training or teaching objectives.  However, it is a stage that is often “over-done” or used ineffectively, either because Presentation was poor (or lacking altogether) or it is not seen and used as a natural step toward Production.  It is the important middle stage to communicative language teaching, but exactly that – the “middle” stage.

Practice activities need to be clear and understandable – they should also be directed toward promoting a considerable degree of confidence in the students.  In general, a carefully laid out practice activity that looks “attractive” to the eye will generate the students’ motivation.  They need to be challenged, but they should also feel that the activity is “within their reach”.

Making a smooth transition from Presentation to Practice usually involves moving the students from the Individual Drill stage into Pair Work (chain pair-work, closed pair-work and open pair-work).  Communicative practice then leads the way toward Production.


The Production Stage is the most important stage of communicative language teaching.  Successful Production is a clear indication that the language learners have made the transition from “students” of the key language to “users” of the language.

Generally Production involves creating a situation requiring the language that was introduced in the Presentation Stage.  That situation should result in the students “producing” more personalized language.  Production is highly dependent on the Practice Stage, because if students do not have confidence in the language then they will naturally be hesitant to independently “use” it.

One of the most important things to remember is that Production activities should not “tell” students what to say.  Whereas in Practice the students had most or all of the information required, during Production they don’t have the information and must think.  Ideally it is challenging in that it is representative of “real life” situations.

Creating and engaging in “Productive” classroom activities can require a certain level of cognitive ability.  Production activities for Young Learners in particular need to be carefully thought out and prepared.

Some good examples of effective Production activities include situational role-plays, debates, discussions, problem-solving, narratives, descriptions, quizzes and games.

“Presentation” involves presenting the target language (the language to be taught to the students) to the students generally through eliciting and cueing of the students to see if they know it and then providing the language if no one does.

The target language is usually put on the board either in structure (grammar-type) charts or in dialogs.  Presentation features more “teacher talk” than the other stages of the lesson, generally as much as 65-90% of the time.  This portion of the total lesson can take as much as 20-40% of the lesson time.

Next comes “Practice” where the students practice the target language in one to three activities that progress from very structured (students are given activities that provide little possibility for error) to less-structured (as they master the material).

These activities should include as much “student talk” as possible and not focus on written activities, though written activities can provide a structure for the verbal practices. Practice should have the “student talk time” range from 60-80 percent of the time with teacher talk time being the balance of that time.  This portion of the total lesson can take from 30-50% of the lesson time.

“Production” is the stage of the lesson where the students take the target language and use it in conversations that they structure (ideally) and use it to talk about themselves or their daily lives or situations.  Practice should involve student talk at as much as 90% of the time and this component of the lesson can/should take as much as 20-30% of the lesson time.

As you can see the general structure of a PPP lesson is flexible but an important feature is the movement from controlled and structured speech to less-controlled and more freely used and created speech.  Another important feature of PPP (and other methods too) is the rapid reduction of teacher talk time and the increase in student talk time as you move through the lesson.

One of the most common errors untrained teachers make is that they talk too much.  EFL students get very little chance to actually use the language they learn and the EFL classroom must be structured to create that opportunity.  See the paragraph on Pairwork and Small Groups below.


Roughly equivalent to PPP, ESA is slightly different in that it is designed to allow movement back and forth between the stages.  However, each stage is similar to the PPP stages in the same order.  Proponents of this method stress its flexibility compared to PPP and the method, as defined by Jeremy Harmer (its major advocate), uses more elicitation and stresses the “Engagement” of students in the early stages of the lesson.

ESA is superior method to PPP when both are looked at from a rigid point of view.  But, EFL is not rigid and you should not adhere to any one viewpoint or method.  PPP is often an easier method for teacher-trainees to get a handle on but probably more programs teach ESA than PPP these days, especially those that teach only one of the approaches.

How do we structure our teaching?

(a) Presentation, Practice, Production

Most teachers plan three phases in their lessons according to the PPP model of Presentation, Practice and Production.

During Presentation, new language is presented perhaps as a grammatical pattern or more frequently within some familiar situation. During this presentation phase, the teacher is often very active and dominates the class doing more than 90% of the talking.

During Production, the students attempt to use the new language in different contexts provided by the teacher.

(b) Engage, study, activate

Since the PPP model has functioned more or less effectively for generations, you might ask why we should be looking at different models. PPP works well provided that your syllabus is based only on giving students ‘thin slices’ of language one slice at a time. The PPP model does not work nearly so well when teaching more complex language patterns beyond the sentence level or communicative language skills.

Another basic problem with PPP is that it is usually based on segments of the one-hour lesson. In this way, lessons are designed with a single focus.

In How to Teach English [Longman 1998] Jeremy Harmer proposed a different three stage model, the ESA model: Engage, Study, Activate.

The three stages of engage, study, activate

(a) Engage

During the Engage phase, the teacher tries to arouse the students’ interest and engage their emotions. This might be through a game, the use of a picture, audio recording or video sequence, a dramatic story, an amusing anecdote, etc. The aim is to arouse the students’ interest, curiosity and attention. The PPP model seems to suggest that students come to lessons ready motivated to listen and engage with the teacher’s presentation.

(b) Study

The Study phase activities are those which focus on language (or information) and how it is constructed. The focus of study could vary from the pronunciation of one particular sound to the techniques an author uses to create excitement in a longer reading text; from an examination of a verb tense to the study of a transcript of an informal conversation to study spoken style.

There are many different styles of study, from group examination of a text to discover topic-related vocabulary to the teacher giving an explanation of a grammatical pattern. Harmer says, ‘Successful language learning in a classroom depends on a judicious blend of subconscious language acquisition (through listening and reading, for example) and the kind of Study activities we have looked at here.

(c) Activate

This element describes the exercises and activities which are designed to get students to use the language as communicatively as they can. During Activate, students do not focus on language construction or practise particular language patterns, but use their full language knowledge in the selected situation or task.

Lesson Structure

(a) The ESA lesson

A complete lesson may be planned on the ESA model where the 50-60 minutes are divided into three different segments. It is very unlikely that these segments will be equal in duration. Activate will probably be the longest phase but Study will probably be longer than Engage.

In this format ESA would appear to be little different from PPP.

(b) The ESA, ESA, ESA lesson

Teachers of children and younger teenagers know that their students cannot concentrate for long periods. They can still use the ESA model but the model may be used repeatedly, producing a larger number of shorter phases.  This repeated ESA model also works well with older teenagers and adults and gives lessons a richness and variety which students appreciate.

It would be wrong to give the impression that EngageStudy and Activate are each single activities. They are phases of the teaching/learning process which may contain one or more activities.