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Learning and teaching: five suggestions

V.J. Cook, University of Essex

Paper for GRETA, 1993

Good language teaching involves helping the students to learn.  In the past few years there has been a tremendous explosion in research into how people learn second languages.  Yet so far this knowledge has made little contact with language teaching methodology or language teachers.  This article is an attempt to present some ideas from current research and to suggest some implications for the classroom teacher.

1.  Let the students have their own approaches to learning

Research has shown that students deliberately choose to organise learning in various ways of their own accord.  Particularly crucial are the ways in which they plan their own learning and the ways in which they process what is going on in the classroom situation; less important are the ways in which they cooperate with others over learning.

Teachers first have to recognise that students are going to go their own way whether they like it or not - you can't prevent them building up their own approach.  Whenever possible the students should learn in their own chosen way.  Some teachers may want to teach the learning strategies to the students - practice in guessing meanings from context, hints on how to prepare for class, advice on ways of memorising vocabulary.  Class discussion of the range of strategies available can also help many students.

2  Fit the teaching to the limitations of the students' memories

Research has shown that none of our memory systems function as well in a second language as in a first, whether short term memory systems for remembering phone numbers, or long term systems for storing information from lectures.  It is not directly a language problem; it is just that memory works less well in a second language.

Every classroom activity involves memory in some way - listening comprehension, information gap exercises, roleplay, even dictation.  The teacher should stop for a moment to consider how memory is involved in each activity, so that its difficulty does not depend on memory alone.  Tasks that seem quite easy in your first language become quite difficult in a second, for example mental arithmetic or finding the way.

3  Allow for the differences between students

Students are diverse human beings.  Some of the differences between them that are important to language teaching are: age, sex, aptitude, motivation, personality, and cognitive style.  Some techniques and methods suit one type of student, others will benefit other types.

Rather than looking for the crock of gold at the foot of the rainbow in the shape of the perfect teaching method, we have to recognise that no methods suits more than a certain proportion of the students.  First we have to choose something that we think fits the 'average' person in our group in terms of all these factors.  Then we have to allow the individual students some freedom within this model to use their own approaches - say alternative exercises, topics, or roles that suit their themselves. 

4  See grammar as central to learning

Without being able to combine words properly, to put them in the right order, and to change their form in systematic ways, we would not be able to speak.  The computational system in the mind that allows us to carry this out is grammar.  The vast majority of research into Second Language Acquisition has concentrated on knowledge of grammar as the central aspect of language that links together the vocabulary, the pronunciation, and the meanings we want to express.  Research has shown in particular how all learners go through particular stages of acquisition and how certain kinds of language input are crucial.

Grammar in this mental sense has been virtually ignored in language teaching; grammar has in recent years mostly been seen as a collection of bits and pieces picked up as a consequence of attempting to communicate.  At best grammar has meant conventional teaching of the rules and patterns of the traditional or structural grammar abandoned by linguists 35 years ago.  At present there are no materials and techniques that treat grammar in this way.  All the teacher can do is remember that the system of grammar that enables us to carry out speech functions, express notions, and so on, something neglected in syllabuses and coursebooks for twenty years.

5  Respect the student's first language

Language teaching has often treated the L2 in isolation from the L1; we pretend our students don't have a perfectly efficient means of communication already available to them that is present all the time they are learning the L2, for better or for worse.  The aim of teaching is seen as producing imitation native speakers; the students are seen as failing because they so seldom get there.

But the appropriate goal for an L2 student is competence in two languages,  not one - multi-competence; they score over the monolingual in knowing two languages, not being pale imitations of native speakers.  Students need to be able to bridge two cultures, and not to discard their first culture.  In teaching the goal should be activities in which the non-native speaker has a role to play, not activities which pretend falsely that all the speakers are natives; the student should never forget that they are users of two languages.  In one sense this lowers the sights in saying there is no point in aiming at producing imitation native speakers; in another sense it raises them by saying that the goal is effective bilinguals who can stand between two cultures and do things no monolingual can dream of.

These five are just a selection of the more radical points that can be made.  They share the factor of respecting L2 learners as unique self-determining individuals, not forcing them into a single mode but giving them a choice, not seeing them as passive recipients of knowledge but as having minds that work actively on what they hear, and not treating them as something they are not, ersatz native speakers. 

Some of the issues for language teaching mentioned here and additional points can be found in V.J. Cook (1991), Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (Edward Arnold).  More technical accounts of the research can be found in R. Ellis (1985), Understanding Second Language Acquisition (OUP), or V.J. Cook (1993), Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition (Macmillan).