The Four Secrets to Learning a Foreign Language

Flashcards to Teach Kids English

There are basic best practices in learning just about anything. If you want to lose weight, you should burn more calories than you consume. If you want to save money you need to spend less money than you earn. If you want to maximize the effectiveness of your English classes, here are four key components to think about.

Comprehensible Input

In order for learning to take place, language targets have to be at a level appropriate for learners. The key is to use English that is just beyond your students ability to challenge them to push forward and learn new things. Stephen Krashen calls this idea ‘Comprehensible Input’ while Vygotsky called it the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD). You may have also heard it as ‘Language Plus One’ (L+1). Basically, it is what students know now plus a little more.

This concept is integral to effective language acquisition. If English targets are too easy then students do not learn anything new. If targets are too difficult then students will not comprehend anything and will just get demotivated. Finding the right level for each class is essential.

This might seem obvious, however, I think many teachers don’t fully grasp this the importance of this idea. Teachers typically come into English classes speaking to students as if they were native English speakers. When students nod their heads and look like they comprehend, teachers assume students understand. Effective teaching means being able to adjust your teacher talk, class materials and lessons as a whole to the level of your students. It is definitely more difficult then it sounds and is a key differentiating factor of experienced and talented teachers.

Another common problem is rapidly progressing through the pages of a textbook. Many teachers, myself included when I started teaching, just assume the material is easy and keep racing to the next page or chapter. The problem is students are pushed a long faster then they can internalize the targets and most of the old language targets are forgotten.

Repetition

In order to remember and recall language targets for the long term, students must have massive amounts of review and recycling. This can often be dozens of reviews over the course of several years. The problem is that most textbooks focus on one target a class, then move on to the next target with very limited recycling. That leaves students in a constant state of learning and forgetting.

Consider this example, if you were to learn 2000 common Chinese or Japanese characters (kanji), could you do it by learning one character per day? What would most likely happen is that after you get to the tenth day you will already start forgetting old characters. By the time you got to the 500th character you probably would have forgotten 90 percent of what you learned. That is exactly the type of learning that happens in most EFL classes.

The only way to learn those 2000 characters would be to learn a little, review a lot, learn a little, review a lot. Only about 5 or 10 percent of your study time would be devoted to new characters, and about 95% would be spent constantly reviewing. That is an important lesson to remember when you are teaching your classes.

Memorability

It’s possible to reduce the repetition required if you have extremely memorable examples. You probably do not remember what you ate for dinner on this exact day last year, but you can probably recall with decent accuracy what you ate on Christmas or another special occasion like your birthday. Try to make your lessons and activities unique enough to be memorable.

Teachers can do a lot to increase the memorability of language targets. Here are some quick ideas.

* Teach for multiple learning styles. Use physical gestures, memorable images, chants and songs, skits, games, picture books, etc. Use as many senses as possible in every lesson.
* Use colors to highlight key points. Good graphic design and presentation principles can have a big impact on your classes. Use different color markers to highlight verb conjugations, or key vocabulary. Make language targets more noticeable for your students.
* Improve your descriptions and explanations. Find ways to better present language targets and structures. Learn to use simple drawings and explanations to teach more complex grammar and targets.
* Help students find connections to other language. For example, when teaching a word like “clown” cover words like “circus, funny, juggle” etc. Don’t teach targets in isolation, link them to a broader context.
* Keep your lessons interesting. Vary your tone and intonation, move around the class, have students get out of their seats. Be interesting and your students will be interested.

Time

There are a lot of companies selling quick solutions to master a foreign language with minimum effort. The truth is language acquisition takes a lot of time and effort. There are no short cuts. In most EFL classes students have less than one hour of classes a week. It is very difficult to make  serious progress with that little English exposure.

Students need to study much more on their own to be able to get the repetition needed to master English. The good news is that the Internet offers countless interesting and effective ways to learn and review English. Have your students do homework outside of class time. Get them to listen to podcasts or watch videos.  Encourage them to play online games like on ABCfrog.com. Have them work together on online projects. That is what EFL2.0 is all about. Technology can be a great enabler for language acquisition. Help your students get started and they will likely find the motivation themselves to continue studying English for a lifetime.

As a teacher you may not have much influence on what your students do outside of class time, however you can do more to make sure you make the most of every lesson. Prepare in advance, get the materials and activities you are going to use all ready and easily accessible. Cue up chants or podcasts you are going to use in class. Stop doing pointless crafts and filler activities. Your students are paying a lot of money to study English so do not waste their time. Make every minute of every class as productive as possible.

If you approach all of your English lessons with these four key components in mind, your students will be able to effectively internalize and use English in a shorter time. Teaching is not about what is easiest for the teacher, it is about maximizing the learning of students. Plan your classes based on what your students need.

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