Thursday, 1 November 2012

Independent learning in MFL

I must admit that I have never got my head around "independent learning" when it comes to language learning. As a Head of Department I was encouraged, along with other departments and teachers, to incorporate as much independent learning as possible in lessons. An underlying assumption, I assume, was that students would be less bored when working on their own, more challenged and that knowledge and skills acquired in this fashion would be better embedded.

Trouble is, language teachers know that to get their pupils to acquire language successfully they need to supply lots of language input which means talking to them, asking them questions, playing them CDs or videos. This is the best quality listening input, although we are, for very good reasons, happy to let them work in pairs and groups when the quality of input will be less good.

All this listening means it is harder for the language teacher to create the conditions for independent learning, unless we just mean that the student can control the pace and nature of the input via a listening station or computer. Even this is a little problematic, because language teachers also know that they need to select and grade the language they release to students.

Now, reading is a different matter, as it is possible to set up independent, if guided, reading schemes. You just need the right kind of graded material and this is not easy to source. The old favourite Bibliobus was a good example of useful reading where pupils could go at their own pace and, in a sense, work independently.

What about "project work" using the mother tongue? Alright if your aim is cultural rather than linguistic, but time is limited, too limited, so we have to prioritise practice in the target language.

When it comes down to it, language teaching, to work well, needs to be teacher-led and instructional in the best sense. We are not talking note-taking here, we are talking structured practice, question-answer, drilling, repetition, game playing, singing and the rest. This is why the charismatic, "all singing, all dancing" style often works well and this is what makes language learning demanding and enjoyable both for teacher and student.

My own experience, and maybe a consequence of my own failings, was that students liked and needed to be led, and became unsettled when they they were left too much to their own devices. Homework was the best opportunity to work alone and this was when lots of great, "independent" work was produced.

We want students to become independent users of the language, but paradoxically giving too much independence is not the best way to achieve it.

Do you agree?


  1. It is such a joyful pleasure to hear a voice like this. Over the past years, there has been a clear dogmatism (from where...?) about how languages should be taught. Firstly, the dogma of target language. Yes! It can work, in certain circumstances but to then apply that across all abilities / both genders has alienated so many students. And now, independent learning is our new church. Yes, it has its place. Yes, in a well-structured classroom it will work; but we are now at the point whereby an OFSTED judgement will de facto assume 'independent learning' as criterion for 'outstanding'. I would like to know how much 'independent learning' takes place in, say, music lessons....??!

  2. Wow - surely what we've all been thinking, but keeping quiet about when we hear what Ofsted want to see. We're talking PLTs and collaborative learning but I know very well how I manage to get my students their A*s in Spanish... by teacher led lessons all the way!!! I am clearly pushing the idea of phonics and dictionary skills so that students can be more independent - but I am also aware that when I let students loose to work on their own - some will and a lot won't... Thanks for making so much sense!It's so good to read your comments!
    Jane Croft

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only person who thinks this! As regards Ofsted, my impression is happy for teachers to lead lessons as long as they don't talk too much. I'm sure they like to see some pair or group work and not too much note-taking. But there IS an issue - as I say, we need to talk a good deal to supply the comprehensible input.

    I suspect also that teacher talk, if it's good, is preferable to children than the CD. I blogged a while ago about how babies are thought to acquire phonological patterns more quickly when they hear the human voice rather than a recording. Maybe the same is true for odler learners. Hard to prove, though.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Totally agree. I was asked once where the independent learning in my observed lesson was. I responded there was little or no time for such learning as pupils needed vast input in order to be able to have output. I said that this is what homework was for. I do think however that we can teach our pupils independent learning techniques by teaching them how to use dictionaries properly, use verb tables and their own notes.

    On a lighter note I get all pupils to hold a dictionary and say: This is a lethal weapon. Used badly it will cause lasting damage! This approach has helped pupils to be better independent thinkers when trying to express themselves in own choice of words.

  5. I agree with you a 100%! This is such an interesting discussion. Independent learning occurs outside of the classroom, but inside there needs to be an input-output exchange. Maybe I'm too old school. But old enough to realize that these dogmas are fads, like the reign of the communicative approach, the ban on mother tongue etc.
    You can't teach a language the same way you teach geography or math.

  6. Fortunately I think we are in a "post methods" era where we accept that an eclectic approach to language teaching is needed and where emthods may vary depending on context. A school classroom is not the same as an adult immersion context, for example.

    I would say the communicative approach (depending what is menat by that term) has brought a lot of benefits and that we are in a better place than thirty years ago.

    Thanks for the comment, Marie.

  7. Since language is, by definition, interactive, there has to be a limit to how much can be learned "independently". Helping students to become autonomous is another thing. As for an observer wanting to see "independent learning", I'd suggest that the best place for that is in the student's home.

  8. And being autonomous has always meant me to have some internalised grammar and vocabulary from which pupils can produce original utterances. Only some pupils reach this stage because of lack of time, motivation or sometimes lack of teacher skill.

    Thanks for commenting.

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