Understanding exactly how learners acquire language aids teaching


Learners and their needs are increasingly becoming the central focus of our teaching. However, if we look more closely at how learners acquire language and use this knowledge to structure our teaching methods, we can teach much more swiftly and effectively.
In order to acquire a language so that it becomes part of our automated output, we first need to ‘notice’ the target language. You can hardly avoid noticing a picture of a tiger on a page, for example, but if you turn the page over, how much detail were you aware of? Did you notice the position of its paws and its tail? The term ‘noticing’ in language acquisition, in its technical usage, includes thinking about it in depth.
After ‘noticing’ new language, we need to make sense of it by relating it to what we already know. Relating it to our own experiences and previously acquired knowledge makes the new language real for us as individuals. For me, a tiger lily, one of my favourite flowers, reminds me of the tiger, making it easier to relate to the word ‘tiger’.
Then we need to remember, recall and use the new language; we need to ‘push’ ourselves to produce it in meaningful situations.
How can we encourage our students to ‘notice’ the vocabulary they need to learn? Using the word ‘vegetable’, for example, we could break up the word into short syllables: veg – e – table, we could make connections with the syllables – the word ‘table’, or for more advanced students, we could use colloquialisms and idioms such as ‘to veg. out’ meaning to relax. For beginners who have difficulty with pronunciation, we could focus on the silent vowels for example and write the word as ‘vegtbl’.
After this, how can we make it easy for students to connect with the language? We could ask them to translate into their own language, select the correct meaning from several that we have offered, name as many collocations as they can, for example, ‘fresh’ vegetables — that is a common collocation — but do we talk about ‘new’ vegetables so much? And of course there is the ever-useful gap fill in which you provide sentences with gaps and one of the gaps needs to be filled with the word vegetable.
Then, how can we encourage our students to retain new words? We could say the word and ask the students to repeat it, the learners could look at the word, say it, cover it, write it down and then check it, or we could ask them to use the Linkword method. This involves looking at the new word for ten seconds while thinking of interacting images that not only reflect the meaning but also use similar sounds to the syllables of the word. For example, if they wanted to remember the Spanish word for cat, the word is ‘gato’. Gato sounds very similar to gateaux, cake, so they could think of a cat eating a gateau.
A major issue with our students is often the way they ignore corrections to their written work. So, how can we encourage them to: ‘notice’, make sense of, remember and make use of our corrections to their written work? Instead of writing in the correct forms, I suggest we ask our students to correct their own work in an informed way. For example, if they have written ‘I am student by brighton. I has two brothers.’, instead of correcting it to ‘I am a student in Brighton. I have 2 brothers.’ we could use an Editing Guide. This is a list of numbered common errors that pinpoint the type of error and explain rules for correct usage.
For example:
1. article? a? the? no article? e.g. a book (we don’t know which one); the book on the table (we know which book); Books are popular (we don’t know how many books we are talking about.)
2. verb form? …
Armed with a page of such information, all we need to do is underline where the errors occur and write the number that corresponds to that type of error in the written work. It is then the turn of the students to read the information in the guide and to correct their mistakes accordingly.
So you can see, using our understanding of how we acquire language, that is, knowing that we need to ‘notice’, make sense of, remember, recall and use the language can help our students learn much more quickly, effectively and enjoyably with a minimum of resources.
(reference: book: ‘Teaching Language Learners’.

Rosemary Westwell
rjwestwell@hotmail.com

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One Response to “Understanding exactly how learners acquire language aids teaching”

  1. Saltanat Says:

    I think this article is very useful for ELT/TEFL teachers. And it describes very unusual I would say and very effective I think, way of how to work with unknown vocabularyin order to retain and learn it. Definetely, I would follow these steps of working with vocabulary, thank you very much.

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