Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Should you change your method for some classes?

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?

You 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.

As 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

If 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?

Alternatively, 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?

The timetable

What 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.

One 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.


  1. I so agree that it is important to see where students are headed with the target language in order to effectively lay out their language learning path when they are in an academic setting.

    I teach in a prep school in the US, and I have a mix of students in my classes. Some are headed toward taking college level « AP » exams, while others have no such ambition.

    While all of my students benefit from a skills-based approach involving a lot of oral expression and listening comprehension, those who will be taking the AP exam next year need to work on their writing skills, so I need to use a more academic approach which focuses on language structure. I find too, that these same students have sound English skills and a firm grasp of English structures, which help greatly.

    My other students are getting a more « practical » approach which is focused more on oral communication, and they engage in various activities.

    Because we are in an academic setting with time constraints (4 45-minute classes per week), whether we like it or not, a totally « natural » approach involving « immersion » is difficult to apply.

  2. Thanks for commenting. Best wishes from the UK. Just to note that many teachers in England would be delighted with 4 x 45 minutes a week! Typically schools get 2 or 3 x 1 hour, or even 1 x 2 hours (which is crazy). It sounds to me like you are adapting your approach sensibly for each class. My impression is that "natural" approaches such as TPRS often involve more grammar teaching than one might imagine.