Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Five great advanced level French listening sites

If your A-level students would like opportunities to practise listening there are plenty of sources you can recommend for accessible, largely comprehensible and interesting material. Here are some I have come across while searching for resources over recent years.

Daily Geek Show

I love this site. It's fresh, youthful and full of really interesting material. They have an archive of videos, both short and long, from various sources, grouped under a range of themes: insolite (weird news items), science, discovery, technology, ecology and lifestyle. There should be something there to interest all your students while adding to their broader education. Here is one I enjoyed (I shall seriously think about buying tomatoes in winter now):




France Bienvenue

This site has been around for years and is the work of a university team in Marseilles. You get a mixture of audio and video material complete with transcripts and explanations.This is much more about the personal lives of the students …

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…