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

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…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Have a repertoire, lighten your workload (part one)

The next four blogs I'm going to post are the equivalent of one of those TV clip shows - you know, the ones where they need to fill a weekly slot by showing the best bits, or deleted scenes, from the series. But these four blogs have a theme. The clue is in the title. Like you, I worked hard when I was teaching, but I was pretty good at keeping things in proportion using a combination of economical planning, rapid marking and experience. The extra time those things created even allowed me to stay relaxed and have fun (most of the time) and to come up with the occasional innovative idea.

So, what I'm going to suggest here is that, if you have a little repertoire of go-to classroom activities, you can save yourself a lot of time and stress, and, what's more, all for the benefit of your classes. You see, I think (actually, I know) pupils like routines, but they also appreciate a bit of variety. So if you apply your repertoire of lesson/activity types sensibly you can satisfy b…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on frenchteacher.net.

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.

Filling the gaps

All teachers at some time make use of gap-fill activities. There are very good reasons for doing so, whether the focus is on careful listening with a transcript, grammatical awareness, vocabulary retrieval or general comprehension. I particularly liked them for scaffolding listening with classes, combining comprehension with phonics and grammar. A gap-fill really gets students listening intensively and supports the process of listening. If you are keen on the idea of Listening as Modelling (as described in our listening book) you may prefer this type of task to general comprehension exercises which can end up promoting guesswork.

You can use gap-full in all kinds of ways and with different aims in mind. As a little exercise I thought I’d make a list if all the types of gap-fill I could think of.  These are all with LISTENING in mind, more than reading. These could help you focus on the precise aim of the gap-fill or just provide you with some variations to make it more interesting for…