In the first of our 6 part ‘Cambridge Papers in ELT’ series, we focus on the ways we can help our students achieve effective English. Today’s white paper explores what successful language teachers and learners do. Inspired by the pedagogical and linguistic insights to be found in the paper, English Language Tutor, Vanessa Pasini, discusses 4 strategies to support effective language learning.
Just because you know everything there is to know about a bike, doesn’t mean you’re an expert the first time you ride one. The same logic applies to learning a language. Being able to use a language (rather than recalling grammar rules or lists of vocabulary) is what truly determines successful language learning. In this post I’ll be looking at 4 ways we can help our students to use English effectively.
4 Strategies to support effective language learning
1. Meaning Focused Input
Students’ receptive skills are usually always stronger than their productive skills, so it’s worth taking advantage of this. Meaning focused input involves reading and listening to texts that push learners a bit beyond their comfort zone. For example, you could present them with some items that they might not be familiar with. They don’t have to understand everything, but they have to be able to infer meaning from context. They also need to be able to understand the general gist of a text. For this to be effective, students need a lot of exposure to a variety of inputs, and the teacher’s role is to pre-teach essential vocabulary and to activate content knowledge via images or discussion.
2. Meaning Focused Output
Or, in other words, getting students speaking and writing in a way that is meaningful to them. I like to think of this as the “let them get on with it” stage. As long as a task is meaningful and engaging, students’ desire to express themselves means they’ll use what they already know. They’ll also start to notice gaps in their knowledge when they aren’t able to get their message across. By taking more of a monitoring role and fading into the background, teachers can start to notice these gaps too.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean allowing your students to repeatedly mispronounce words and misuse vocabulary. You should always jump in and make corrections if necessary! It’s important, though, to be judicious when you do this. Don’t interrupt communication, and be wary that hovering over your students can effect the group dynamic. Giving your students freedom means that they have a chance to experiment with language and question each other on how they’re using it. They get to use English to talk about English. This leads us to the next factor…
3. Language Focused Learning
Language focused learning tasks are those we think of as being traditional. Examples include examining tenses or learning vocabulary. There’s an emphasis on accuracy, whether that’s in pronunciation, collocations, feedback on writing or memorising set conversational phrases. Every error or misuse of language has a root cause. If we look at why, we can treat the cause rather than the symptom.
Self correction fits into this concept. It’s nothing new, but there can be a feeling of “just tell us the right answer”, which doesn’t lend itself to a lot of cognitive depth. After marking writing or monitoring a speaking task, you should write some of the errors on the board (along with examples of good use of language). I then remove myself from the room and the class negotiate and discuss language. This encourages language output, as well as language focus. This sets the students up with skills that they can continue to use once they finish their course.
4. Fluency Development
- Be understood
- Use what you know
- Do it again
Fluency development involves learners using what they already know in order to express themselves more fully than they did in meaning-focused output. This time, though, there is the added motivation of a time limit. This helps to replicate authentic interaction.
Repetition is crucial. In fact, I like to compare language learning to using a gym. You can’t go once, use all the machines once and expect to transform yourself overnight. Repetition refines what we can already do and makes it better, until we repeat it again and make it great, then fantastic! Repetition in output also reflects real life. We have conversations about similar topics all the time in our day-to-day lives but this is where the “who, why, where, how” of communication comes into play. Communication changes depending on; the relationship with the reader or listener, the purpose behind it, the location and the method used.
To learn English successfully, students need access to texts that are slightly beyond their level. They need freedom to express themselves and test out unfamiliar language combined with accuracy focused input. And, finally, they need a chance to practice what they already know again and again.
If you’ve enjoyed Vanessa’s article and want to delve further into the subject area, make sure you download the related white paper: What successful language teachers and learners do.
We’ll be back soon to share the second from the Cambridge Papers in ELT series!