You may know that I often blog about the two ends of the second language learning spectrum: comprehensible input (learning seen to be similar to child language acquisition) and skill-acquisition (learning seen as the automatisation of skills where learning a language is likened to any sort of learning of a complex skill). I find myself sitting somewhere in the middle of that spectrum since my hunch is that both ideas have their merits.
I have also suggested
elsewhere that it is quite possible to incorporate aspects of both
approaches in a course, killing two birds with one stone, if you like.
So-called comprehensible input practitioners include a large amount of
recycling of high frequency language in their lessons. Who is to say if
acquisition is occurring unconsciously or by the repetition of a skill? I
don't think we can know the answer to that at present.
But what if one approach is more suitable than another for different categories of student?
see, proponents of comprehensible input argue that their approach is
appropriate for students of all abilities. They argue that because every
young child picks up a language at a broadly similar rate, second
language learners at school should be able to do the same if the
conditions are right, i.e. if they are exposed to interesting,
meaningful, controlled input. Acquisition is easy, they say. They also
claim that traditional methods ("legacy methods", they might call them)
are biased towards students who succeed academically, since they
prioritise pattern-spotting, memorising, explicit teaching of grammar,
puzzle-solving and so on.
On the other hand, those who
argue for a more cognitive, skill-building approach might say: yes, but
we have a duty to all children to let them learn in the most efficient
way, by focusing a fair degree on form, doing structured practice,
making rules transparent and so on. Comprehensible input takes too long. Input alone is too woolly
and doesn't give sufficient priority to output practice and
explanation. Acquisition is actually hard and time-consuming, they say. Skill-acquisition lets you take short-cuts.
an aside, it's worth recalling what the academic SLA scholar Michael
Long has written about this apparent dichotomy. When you go into most
classrooms teachers are often doing similar things. CI teachers are
explaining some grammar and doing structured practice, while
skill-building teachers are providing plenty of comprehensible input.
Things aren't as clear-cut as they might appear.
So, in a school setting, is there any merit in adjusting the approach depending on certain factors. these might be:
The ability profile of the students
you have a class of lower ability, possibly poorly motivated students,
would you persist with so-called legacy methods which may not have
worked in the past and which the pupils find boring? Or was it that the traditional approach was just badly done by many teachers whose expectations were too low? On the other
hand, if you teach well-motivated, relatively able pupils, would you
prioritise a skill-acquisition approach because it has worked in the
past and gets results?
The longer term goals of the students
If you know that most of your students will stop doing a language at the age of 14 would you reject skill-building approaches the benefit of which might take a long time to be seen? Would you focus on simply maximising the interest value of your lessons and not bother much if the students cannot conjugate verbs or make adjectives agree?
if you know that a percentage of your pupils are in it for the long
haul and may become quite fluent linguists, would you focus to a greater
extent on grammatical form, automatising skills and so on, aware that a small percentage of your students will become proficient and accurate language-users?
if you only see your classes once a week for an hour or two? Will your
pupils have enough time to build up skills, or might you prefer to
abandon this unattainable goal and focus more on some situational
language and cultural input which may benefit them for future study or
just give them a broader vision of the world?
If you see your class four times a week you have a much greater chance of getting skills to stick. For many pupils they do.
The exams they will ultimately do
If you know that nearly all your students will enter for GCSE and
some will take the language further this will alter your ambitions
straight away. But does this necessarily mean prioritising
skill-acquisition over comprehensible input, meaning-driven approaches?
Again, I would be tempted to take a middle-ground view, in the absence
of any really convincing research evidence.
If you know
that your pupils will end up doing no high-stakes exam, you may be
tempted to focus, as above, on meaning, culture and enjoyable activity.
You may want to get students looking at short-term, attainable goals,
rather than offering the promise of long-term achievement.
problem is that when we start working with students we cannot be sure
where their path will end. But you may have a fair idea based on your
own school's context.
It's a quandary.