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Some basic principles of language learning and teaching

A bit of theory. Stating the obvious maybe?

Second language learning can take place in a variety of ways depending on a range of variables: the teacher (we are all different and need to believe in our approach), the class (age, motivation), the school context(e.g. testing regime), timetable (how many lessons, length of lessons) and so on. It is wise for the teacher, therefore, to exploit a variety of teaching approaches, but within certain parameters. I would not argue for a laissez faire attitude, but for eclecticism within the framework of what we know for sure about language learning. In 1966 J.B. Carroll in "The Contributions of Psychological Theory and Educational Research to the Teaching of Foreign Languages" listed what he called the "facts of verbal learning":

1.  In learning a skill it is often the case that conscious attention to its critical features and understanding of them will facilitate learning.

2.  The more meaningful the material to be learned, the greater the facility in learning and retention.

3.  Other things being equal, materials presented visually are more easily learned than materials presented aurally.

4.  The more numerous kinds of association that are made to an item, the better the learning and retention.

For the languages teacher these points imply to me that we should:

1.  exploit the here-and-now and what is perceived to hold meaning for the learner. (That might include personal information, likes and dislikes etc, but might exclude transactional language like that used for hotel booking or filling a car with fuel;

2.  provide large amounts of target language in a meaningful way ("comprehensible input" to use Krashen's terminology). This will involve:

3.  select and grade the language to be presented and offering as many extra-linguistic clues as possible. It may include exploiting the first language via translation at times, if it speeds up things and allows, ultimately, for more target language to be used;

4.  give explanations about grammatical rules when considered fruitful;

5.  practise using language in a variety of ways (oral, listening, reading and writing);

6.  motivate the students by giving them a sense of progress and range of activities;

7.  keep the learner concentrating by appropriate means to maximise the exposure to the language;

8.  recycle previously taught grammar and vocabulary.

These points clearly suggest a blend of natural, "informal" acquisition and conscious, formal learning for the classroom, with a bias towards the former, especially with more advanced learners. It is the common sense approach which the best teachers use in most school contexts.

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