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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).


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