Skip to main content

Get it right from the beginning or get it right in the end

Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spader, in their very readable book How Languages are Learned (OUP, 2011, third edition), make the distinction between two ways of looking at second language teaching. The label the first "get it right from the beginning" and the second "get it right by the end".

The "get it right from the beginning" position, they say, characterises a great deal of second language teaching practice. It is typical of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual approaches, but still features strongly as part of weaker communicative approaches. The idea is that you design your tasks with accuracy in mind, tightly control the input, moving from "easier" to "harder" and building up skills and knowledge as you might complete a jigsaw. Some writers call this (usually disparagingly) skill-building. You hope that these explicitly taught rules become internalised and enable students to produced spontaneous language.

Research suggests that many adult learners, notably those with good metalinguistic knowledge of their first language, enjoy this type of structural approach. Lightbown and Spada note, in addition, that learners' beliefs about the best type of instruction can influence their motivation and success. However, the authors also note that there is little classroom research which shows that students of varying motivation and aptitude in typical school classrooms benefit from this approach more than others. (Bear in mind that very able students will tend to make progress pretty much whatever the method.)

One reason that many students fail to make great progress with form-focused, accuracy-based methods of this type is that they feel inhibited and are reluctant to take chances when trying to communicate. Studies show that students benefit when they get a chance to communicate more freely. Other reasons, as critics of the approach point out, are that the language system is just to large and complex to be acquired in this fashion and that pupils are often not ready to internalise the items which we choose to teach them; they might understand structures, apply them in the short term, but then fail to make them part of their "mental representation" of the language. It is also fair to say that students are rarely given enough time and frequency of exposure to allow acquisition to occur at a high rate.

At the other end of the spectrum, proponents of the "get it right in the end" approach, although usually recognising that an attention to accurate form has a role, don't make the assumption that everything has to be "taught". They believe that many language features will be picked up naturally through exposure to meaningful language input. They view comprehension-based, content-based or task-based instruction as the crucial elements in teaching, perhaps aided by some focus on grammatical form and corrective feedback.

Lightbown and Spada go on to list research studies which aimed to support the "get it right at the end" position. They conclude that these studies "provide support for the hypothesis that form-focused instruction and corrective feedback within communicative and content-based second and foreign language programmes can can help learners improve their knowledge and use of particular grammatical features". They add a caveat, however, that the effects of the instruction may not be long-lasting.

Later on, in their summary, the authors reach the conclusion that a mixed diet of communication, focus on form and corrective feedback is superior to an approach which relies on comprehension, accuracy or fluency alone. This should not come as a surprise to most teachers working in school settings in the UK who attempt to provide that eclectic mix of communication and attention to grammar. How successful they are depends on their skill at implementing the approach, the amount of time they get to spend with students and the motivation of the students themselves which may depend to an extent on factors beyond the teacher's control.

When you teach, do you think you are lean towards the "get it right form the start" or "get it right by the end" position? For myself, and as we exemplify in The Language Teacher Toolkit, I would be happy to accept elements of both approaches. You can provide plenty of meaningful input in a structured fashion, with varying degrees of focus on form, thus, in a sense, killing two birds with one stone. In my own teaching I had the feeling that the more tightly "get it right form the start" approach worked better with beginners and low intermediates, whilst with advanced students I felt happier to accept that acquisition would occur more naturally provided the students received large amounts of input at or just above their level (think of Krashen's i +1).

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.

Attitudes16





An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at dolanguages.com, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

Learning strategies (3)

This is the third in the mini-series of blogs about learning strategies. So far, we have looked at some (rather scant) research evidence for the effectiveness of strategies. Bear in mind that a lack of research evidence does not mean strategies do not work; if there is any consensus, it is that they are probably useful and probably best used when integrated into a normal teaching sequence. We then looked at a classification of different types of strategies.

In this blog Gianfanco and I look at how you might integrate strategies into your teaching. There is nothing revolutionary about this stuff! You may do a good deal of this type of thing already, but you may also be new to the concepts and applications of learning strategies.


Let's look at how you might use strategies, particularly with regard to the teaching of listening and reading. Remember: this is just about how you help students to use strategies to become better listeners and readers.

How to teach strategies 

The research …