In the general education structure, students, no matter what age, are usually left shockingly alone to figure out how to learn best. I’ll generalise: they are taught the content but are hardly given advice in retaining it. Learners are disheartened because they try and try and don’t feel a good enough improvement. Thankfully, there’s great research and information out there about learning strategies that can be applied for languages as well. Inspired by the MOOC I’m taking about “Learning to Learn“, let me share my favourites.
The growth mindset
This is probably the most important, albeit not a strategy but an attitude. A good teacher has to believe that everyone can be smarter if they work at it. There are no such things as “language-smart” and “language-dumb”. Through effort, persistence, and very importantly, good teaching, everyone’s talents can be developed. It’s important that both teachers and learners believe it, too.
Be OK with mistakes
Speaking a language is not about perfection. During tests students are made into a failure if they don’t perform well enough. In real life, speaking a language is about communication, about relating to another person, no matter how faulty the method of the communication actually is. But learners won’t get there if they don’t start speaking.
Hands on heart, who hasn’t done the opposite? Staying up the night before the exam, cramming as much information into our overdriven brain as humanly possible, keep some of it until the exam is done, then forget most the day after. This is not how language learning works. The best approach is to practice a little every day, just like you do when you want to learn playing an instrument or other skills.
It’s more the responsibility of the teacher (or the curriculum) than that of the student. Basically it means variation. No-one would consider teaching people a 1000 words, then go over all the grammar, then do reading at all levels for example. Each lesson uses a variety of skills within language learning but it’s important to focus each exercise on the same. In the grammar exercises, practice the vocabulary from before. In the listening, use the recently covered grammar. It takes a bit of attention but helps heaps. The same applies when the student practices at home. If they focus too much on one topic, one area, they won’t be able to use their time productively.
Creating chunks of information
Instead of practising vocabulary in word tests, like it still happens in many schools, it’s better to practise the words in expressions, even in sentences. That way the relationship between words gets reinforced in the brain and next time, instead of finding the words separately, the student needs only to look for the practiced phrase that includes several words.
When learning new vocabulary or grammar, reading about it it’s not enough. One of the reasons why our passive vocabulary is bigger (in any language) than the active, regularly used words is because we didn’t spend time on recalling. The retrieval process enhances deep learning and also helps to form chunks as mentioned above. I’ve always felt that I don’t really know a word until I used it freely in a sentence. This flexibility will allow to use the chunks of information independently.
Zooming in, zooming out
The approach which is also called the power of ten, urges students to look at the same thing from different perspectives and varying closeness. It helps to see the big picture and create connections within. For example a group of words used in a text are the building blocks of the lesson. Now, zoom out, have a look at the topic of the text, then how does it relate to the class, what will we use it for later, what are the next steps, where is it in the big picture of language learning. Then zoom in, look at the words themselves, their spelling, their pronunciation, their structure, this will give the students a much better idea about the topic.
Igniting the procedural memory
All through our schooling and adult life we are conditioned to learn through the analytical declarative memory, which can help in certain aspects of the language. But not all. So how to make that switch? One of the key tactics is to engage part of your brain while doing listening. For example colouring, drawing, even doodling is a good step to be able to absorb difficult morphological aspects of language into long term memory.
It’s no coincidence that children lullabies and old ballads use rhymes. It makes it a lot easier to remember. Including these in reading, vocabulary learning or even grammar explanations (creative teachers step forward!) will make a big difference.
Less effective practices
There are a number of widely used, but not proven to be effective techniques, such as keyword mnemonic (when students develop an artificial keyword to link the new words for example) or the usage of imagery might have short term results with certain types of learners but they don’t help on the long term.
Practice tests are also considered to be one of the most effective but I haven’t listed them because they define success in terms of a regulated expectation framework instead of the success of natural communication.
Now it’s your turn: what are your favourites methods of learning a language or any other subjects? I’d love to know, please leave a comment.
- John Dunlosky: Strengthening the Student Toolbox
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Try, try again? Study says no: Trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language, neuroscientists find.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 July 2014.
- Laurie L. Dove: Why do rhymes help people remember things?
- Sue Shellenbarger: The power of doodle
PS: I can recommend the “Learning to Learn” MOOC, it started 2 weeks ago, very engaging and informative. And it’s free.