Friday, 18 March 2016

A reflection on language teaching

We rounded off our handbook for language teachers with a final reflection which attempts to encapsulate our general feeling about the craft of language teaching. This is a slightly adapted version of that afterword.


If you read our blogs ( and you'll know that we are interested in both ends of the second language acquisition spectrum: conscious learning (explanation and skill acquisition through practice) and unconscious (natural and with the focus on meaningful input). The longer we have taught and examined the theory and research over the years, the more we think that there is strong merit in both these perspectives on language teaching. Research into second language learning is still young. Although progress is being made, we cannot yet be sure what is happening in the 'black box' of the brain, but if we make sure we provide meaningful, repetitive, structured exposure to language, with explanation, practice and communicative interaction, learning will occur.

Now, the rate at which learning occurs depends on a range of factors, including, crucially, motivation and student aptitude for language learning, then others such as teacher quality, the number and frequency of lessons, amount of homework, spacing of lessons and quality of input. Anything which can be done to optimise these factors will improve the pace of acquisition.

Given that we cannot yet be certain to what extent second language learning is like first language learning (it seems very unlikely they are identical), then the sensible course is to exploit a mixture of principled approaches based on what we know about both language learning and learning in general. There is no need to defend one approach against all the others. If the approach provides the elements above - input, output, repetition and reinforcement, interesting material, explanation and so on - it should work.

It is also probable that this kind of eclectic approach makes sense given the variation we see in our students. Some seem to thrive on more highly natural or communicative methods, whereas others enjoy a degree of formal explanation to supplement the input. Some like to listen a lot, others like to read; some prefer talking, others writing; some want to become fluent speakers, the majority may just want to get by with some simple situational or conversational language.

Not only do students vary, so do teachers. Whatever approach, or mix of approaches, is adopted, you need to believe in it, understand the rationale behind it and execute it efficiently. We believe an excellent all-round teacher will get better results with what might seem a dubious approach (such as grammar-translation), than a less gifted teacher trying to use an ostensibly better method. We know that in our business so much is about classroom relationships, being able to adapt to the moment, having a feel for what students enjoy and, of course, behaviour management.

At the start of our handbook we refer to the idea of ‘principled’ eclecticism. Why not exploit a range of principled approaches? Naturalist, meaningful input and form-focused, skill-building methods both have their supporters and with good reason. An approach with elements of each is most likely to be a firm foundation on which to build as a language teacher.

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