Thomas was hired by Raquel Welch, Barbra Streisand, Emma Thompson, Woody Allen and by Grace Kelly when she had to learn French rapidly after becoming engaged to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Towards the end of his life he recorded audio versions of his courses that were especially popular in Britain.
With Thomas's method, the teacher cautions students to avoid making notes and to refrain from making conscious attempts to memorise, promising that the teacher will "be taking full responsibility" for their learning. Thomas stated that keeping the students relaxed, focused and stretched with a feeling of mounting successful achievement, is at the heart of the method. The removal of the stress and anxiety 'of being put on the spot' of conventional language learning, especially school language learning is very important. The emphasis is on understanding and being understood, not on being perfect.
The teacher then introduces short words and phrases in the target language. The students are asked 'How would you say?' an English phrase into the target language (this is not the same as translation), starting with trivially simple sentences and gradually building up to more advanced constructions. The phrases are chosen as common building blocks of the expression of thoughts. When a student gives a correct answer, the teacher repeats the whole sentence with correct pronunciation. When the student's answer is wrong, the teacher assists the student to understand their mistake and to correct it. The most important words and phrases are reviewed repeatedly during the course. It is learning mostly by example, as you learnt your mother tongue, before you went to school.
Within the original four courses taught by Thomas himself (Spanish, French, Italian and German), the teaching focuses on verb conjugations and modal verb constructions such as "I want to go", and pronouns: the vocabulary used in the course is fairly small, particularly in terms of nouns and adjectives. Grammar rules are introduced gradually, and grammatical terminology is generally avoided. In this way the students are, at an early stage, able to translate a sentence as complex as "I want to know why you don't have it for me now, because it is very important for me and I need it". Normally, when using a first language you know what you want to say, as ideas, but not necessarily having it in words in your mind. You then simply express it in words, and it is done for the most part automatically. The Michel Thomas method asks 'How would you say?', not 'translate this'. People who have learnt by conventional methods are often seen in foreign countries, working very hard to convert thoughts into their first language and then translate into the target language. When they no longer have to do this, it is commonly called 'a breakthrough'. The Michel Thomas method aims to get rid of the translation stage from the start.
The teacher often exploits the shared linguistic heritage of the two languages to teach new vocabulary. For example, in the French course it is pointed out, that half to two thirds of English vocabulary is in common with, or derived from French. Michel Thomas recommends exposure to the popular media in a target language, to improve vocabulary and points out that the vocabulary that is used in popular newspapers is surprisingly small.
A book describing the method in detail called "Michel Thomas: The Learning Revolution" by Jonathan Solity was released in June 2008. An earlier manuscript for a book on the method, by NLP practitioner Wyatt Woodsmall, was rejected by Hodder and Stoughton.
This approach was adapted to tape and CD by recording live sessions with two students. The listener then attempts to translate the phrase on the tape before the student in the recording does, pausing the recording and rewinding as necessary. The recorded method became in 2003.
Course types included the Beginner's and Advanced courses following the method described above. The shorter Builder courses were more vocabulary-orientated.
Since Thomas' death in 2005, the courses have been reissued. An additional review CD course, is now available at both beginner and advanced levels. This consists of a number of questions from the main course and an booklet acting as an index, advising which section to revise in the main course. These were initially available as a free addition to the standard courses, but are now only available separately at full price.
Publishers Hodder and Stoughton published "vocabulary" courses in French, German, Spanish and Italian in May 2007. In September 2007, Foundation (beginner) courses in Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Russian were released, with Advanced courses to follow in March 2008. Foundation courses in Dutch, Portuguese and Japanese were released on 25 July 2008 release. Planned further releases include:
Polish Foundation - 26 September 08; Dutch/Japanese/Portuguese Advanced - 30 January 09; Polish Advanced - 27 February 09; Greek Foundation - 29 May 09; Arabic/Mandarin/Russian Vocabulary - 31 July 09; Greek Advanced - 25 September 09.
The new courses are taught with the assistance of native speakers, although Hodder have stated that they follow the Michel Thomas Method faithfully. Rose Lee Hayden, a close associate of Thomas during his later life, has played a prominent role in the production of the new courses.
Dr. Harold David Goodman, the only person who Michel Thomas trained in his method (1995 - Winter, 2004), is the author and co-teacher of the Michel Thomas Mandarin Foundation and Advanced courses (Hodder, UK), Speak Mandarin Chinese for Beginners and sequels (McGraw-Hill, USA).
There is also a Michel Thomas Spanish program developed for schools, called ¡Es Posible, developed by Paul Howard and used in a Blackburn grammar school in the UK. The French version, C'est Possible, was released on 30th May 2008, with the German version, "Es ist Gut!", currently in development.
The French company Harrap publish two courses for native French speakers using Thomas' method: a Beginners' English course and an Advanced English course.
A Beginners' course in Spanish for French Speakers was released in September 2007.