Helping learners to acquire language through input

Posted: January 19, 2014 in ELT methodology
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As I mentioned in the previous post, it transpires from Second Language Acquisition (SLA) literature that learning occurs when one notices a bit of language in input that they understand. This is not only true for explicit knowledge (e.g.  the knowledge of individual lexical items or awareness of turn-taking strategies), but also for implicit knowledge (that is, noticing grammar in input helps to develop automatic grammatical processing). For the magic to happen, two ingredients have to be in place. One needs to

  • interpret the bit of language correctly in input
  • consciously notice that this bit of language was used

It might appear that ‘noticing’ goes on more or less automatically, but actually I’d say that by default it does not happen, because all attentional resources (which are extremely limited) are devoted to comprehending the message. So, if you wait a few moments after the learner has heard an utterance, for it to stop being replayed in their phonological loop, and then ask them to repeat what was said, they will probably report the message using their own lexis and employing their own grammatical processing routines and they are likely to be at a loss as to what expressions and grammar was used. For me, one striking example of this occurred when I was at school. My English teacher mostly spoke English during the lesson but occasionally said something in Russian. When I began to understand her more or less easily, I began to notice that I often could not recall whether the last sentence had been said in English or in Russian.

The implications for me as a language teacher are that, if I want my students to learn autonomously, it is not enough to motivate them to go and use English. I need to actually

  • tell them that they need to both understand and notice
  • do something in class to help them to understand + notice

In order to approach this in a more consistent way, I ask myself four questions: What steps could the students take in order to understand more?  What steps could the teacher take to help the students understand more? What could the teacher do to help students notice? What can the students do to notice language?

In my experience, the most important principle regarding promoting any strategy for autonomous learning is to try out the strategy in class at least once.  As for the principles specific to the four questions above, here are some of the techniques that I’ve come up with and tried out (but, naturally, I’d also love to hear what you do, because there are bound to be efficient approaches missing from the list).

  • What steps could the students take in order to understand more?
    1. Read and listen in L2 on familiar topics.
    2. Watch films they’ve already watched in their mother tongue (L1).
    3. Read news stories in L1 and then L2 (some news sites provide the same article in several languages, e.g.
    4. Re-read/re-watch the same text/film more than once.
    5. Fully concentrate on the message first time they listen/read/watch. Trying to pay attention to meaning and form at the same form is bound to affect comprehension. So much so that, according to some studies, students understand less if some grammatical structures have been highlighted in the text.
  • What steps could the teacher take to help the students understand more?
    1. Promote learning high-frequency vocabulary through the key-word technique.
    The students could either use a list of high frequency words to locate gaps in their knowledge – I like Longman Communication 3000 – or use a lexical profiler to find out which words in the subtitles to films they watch and the articles they read are high frequency words that are worth learning.
    2. Consistently work on pronunciation in class. If students consistently mispronounce some words, they might also fail to understand them in speech.
    3. Use authentic materials in class – as my CELTA tutor Simon Brown repeatedly told us, ‘Grade the task and not the materials’ (e.g. elementary students could listen to the news and say: how many news items did you hear? who is each item about?)
    4. Help the students to cope with natural pronunciation of high-frequency chunks and functional words. High-frequency chunks often get distorted in natural speech (no one bothers to pronounce every single sound), so to prevent the situation in which the students ‘know’ a chunk but cannot actually understand it in speech, the teacher could teach such chunks through listening passages (introducing them through a gap-fill). Incorporate the work on natural pronunciation into every single grammar focus session and provide the students with lots of samples of target grammar in natural speech. For example, there are ‘learn grammar with films’ youtube videos, which could be made into a gap-fill exercise targeting weak forms of function words. Here’s an example of a video for am/is/are (there are more links in this post):
  • What could the teacher do to help students notice?
    1. Give the s/s an overview of grammar without expecting them to produce all of these structures in their speech. Make sure they do remember the forms and the ‘rules-of-thumb’ of use and provide them with practice in identifying + interpreting the structures in textsImage
    2. Research typical problems for learners with your students’ mother tongue (L1). Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems by Michael Swan is a good source. Analyze what features of language the students with that particular L1 fail to acquire even at higher levels and give the students an overview of these particular features; find a good text/video that exemplifies these features and provide practice in noticing.
  • What can the students do to notice language?
    1. Most importantly – re-read/re-listen/ re-watch everything. First time you read or listen it’s almost impossible to pay attention to anything but the message.
    2. Direct their attention:
    > Consciously pick an aspect of language to notice; do not limit yourself only to grammar or only to lexis: pronunciation, the structure of a conversation, the way topic shifts, what people do to sound friendly and formal/informal etc and even body language and facial expressions are worth noticing (come to think of it, it might be a good idea to give the students a mind-map of ‘features worth noticing’ and then conduct monthly follow-up sessions in class in which s/s could report on their findings – see this post for more on how to mind map genres)
    > Pick out a high-frequency grammar structure and listen out for it for five minutes
    > Choose a scene in a film and try to figure out which grammar structures occur frequently
    > Choose a scene in a film and listen out for rising and falling intonation or stressed or unstressed words or the words that are pronounced slowly
    > Depending on the content of a scene in a film, listen out for vague language or ways to express politeness or interaction patterns, etc (warning:I’ve read that films are bad for exploring back-chanelling – characters don’t tend to ‘uh-uh’ as much as they would be expected to in real life)
    > While reading news items, look out for groups of related expressions (here’s a mindmap produced by one of my students based on a newspaper article) :
    3. Students could also compare their own production with the input:
    > On the third/fourth etc watch, predict the line and then compare it with the actual line; notice any differences
    Translate a paragraph of text/subtitles into their language, then translate it back and notice any differences.
    > A strategy that worked wonders for me when I started out learning English: regularly ask yourself ‘Is there anything in this sentence I’ve just read/heard that I myself wouldn’t be able to say?’

I’d love to hear what you think about the strategies suggested in this post – which ones have you used? which ones are, do you think, unworkable? Also, any other ideas on how else to help students notice language are highly welcome!


A mind map of this post:

input = acquisition

  1. Аурелия says:

    Да ! Так и есть. Грамматические конструкции и особенности языка далеко не автоматически отпечатываются в голове много слушающего человека. Именно понимать нужно и рефлексировать по поводу языка иностранного и его отличий от родного.

    Спасибо за интересный текст

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