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DSC00855Over the years there have been many theories about how our pupils best learn foreign languages. We have seen grammar-translation, direct methods, audio-visual and audio-lingual based loosely on the behaviourist movement, situational, communicative, 'comprehensible input', functional/notional and so on.

In recent years there has been a rather sensible recognition, previously shared by many language teachers, that there is no panacea method for getting pupils to learn a language. Pupils have varying learning skills and personalities, while teachers have different backgrounds and methodological biases, and schools and countries have different traditions. There are so many variables involved in language learning that no one method can honestly be recommended for all pupils.

So what do we know?

After thirty-odd years of teaching French and thinking about language acquisition, a number of points occur to me.

Children appreciate clarity. If using the target language all the time makes things hard for pupils and they stop understanding, then this can hinder progress. Don’t get me wrong: large amounts of target language use in the classroom are important for pupils to improve their listening and oral skills, and to embed grammar, but teachers should not be too dogmatic about TL use. I sometimes advised inexperienced teachers that it is a good idea to use the target language in solid bursts of, say, 10 minutes and then to “release tension” by briefly going into English. I was increasingly struck over the years that, whatever techniques we employ, many of our pupils, even quite clever ones, don’t understand quite a lot of what we say!

Now, you may protest that this is part of language learning and I agree, but when it gets to the point of turning off learners, then something has gone wrong and some learners are indeed turned off, even in the very early stages of language learning, a time when learning could be the most enjoyable. Students need lots of input, but it must be “comprehensible”, to use the formula coined years ago by the second language learning theorist Steven Krashen. The vogue for “assessment for Learning” (formative assessment) has correctly made us think about getting students to analyse their own work and that of their peers. This may best be done in English most of the time.

So beware of being dogmatic about target language use.

Clarity also means understanding instructions. I believe it is more pragmatic and efficient to explain the rules for an activity or game in English, perhaps after an explanation in the target language. This gains time and you do not waste time subsequently explaining to students what they are meant to be doing. So you use a little English to achieve a gain of greater practice time, understanding and enjoyment.

One thing the behaviourists taught us is that repetition, drilling and controlled practice are useful weapons in a teacher’s armoury. So I have found it useful over the years, especially with beginners and near-beginners to do frequent group repetition and drilling, rapid question and answer and simple oral drills (e.g. I say a positive, they give back a negative). These traditions of audio-lingualism may be less popular nowadays, but I believe most children enjoy the clear structure of such activities which can help to fix structures in their heads. The more meaningfull a drill, the better. I have always rather liked the imperfect analogy that learning a language is like learning a musical instrument. Drills (scales?) are often effective starters to lessons when you want to get all your class quickly paying attention. This approach is referred to in some quarters as "skill-building" or "skill acquisition".

The communicative tradition of pair and group work based on information gap activities has been a very useful one, but such activities should normally come after more controlled practice of a more traditional type. We cannot pretend that our classrooms are places where language can always be used authentically. It is perhaps wiser to base our choice of task on what is plausible, rather than what is authentic. Most audio recordings and texts are "adapted authentic", which makes pedagogical sense. This even applies at advanced level.

The rise of communication technology in the classroom has also been a very useful one, now that most pupils have access to fast computers and tablets connected to the internet. I have found that most students learn a lot, particularly about grammar and meaning from good interactive exercises (e.g. the languagesonline site from Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe). But the computer is no panacea either. Language learning is a social activity and pupils enjoy interacting with other humans, including, for the most part, their teachers. They appreciate being clearly instructed and led in their activities, knowing that the teacher is clearly in control. To some extent, this sets us apart from other subject areas where more independent learning styles are sometimes encouraged. We can only begin to let students free once they have reached a more advanced level. We do not have the time to let them work at length on personal projects since we often have to work through a structured programme, carefully selected and graded.

What about grammar? My experience tells me that students like it when grammar is carefully explained in English at some point. I still prefer on the whole to practise a point before the stage of explanation, however. This means pupil can infer rules for themselves. Even so, on some occasions, for example during an afternoon lessons when a class may become restless and need tight control, I am happy to beginning with an old fashioned grammar explanation in English form board or OHT, followed by oral drilling and a written exercise (the "deductive approach"). “Learning grammar” is, of course, far more about internalising rules through practice than knowing how to explain the rule, in itself not a particularly important skill. Grammar is the heart of everything for the learner who wishes to make serious progress and become fluent, but it may be much less important to the child who is going to stop learning after just three years. Perhaps the focus should be more on vocabulary knowledge, cultural input and survival language for such learners.

As far as vocabulary is concerned, I used to hate the concept of vocab tests – so dull, predictable and tedious - but I would now say that, once again, there is a comfortable structure involved with such tests which suit many learners. It is the case, however, that pupils of lower aptitude find memorising words very hard, so testing needs to take various forms, short and longer term, whilst with some groups it may be avoided altogether. Vocab is best acquired by frequent repetition and recycling within meaningful contexts.

When planning a lesson the acid tests should be: is this task useful? So do not write off translation (both ways) and do not write off dictation (so favoured by the French and not without reason).

I would not advocate a traditional classroom per se, but it is not the case that every task we set has to be an exciting one! Above all, the classroom is a place for work, and most pupils know this. I would hope to mix up a unit of work with all sorts of tasks, some very traditional, some more imaginative. When pupils are judging their teachers, they will appreciate imaginative planning and a lively approach, but above all they will wish to work and enjoy the company of their teacher. And this is of course the crux of the matter: teaching methodologies are very important, but more important is the personality of the teacher and the way they are able to control, interact with and motivate their pupils. There is no one way of doing this and it is difficult to teach and learn such subtle skills. Teachers need to have well-developed empathy with their students, not just emotional, but cognitive - a keen sense of what students find easy and hard and what is needed to move them forwards.

Learning a language is a difficult thing to do and adverts claiming you can learn a language in three months do us no favours. Poor school timetabling for languages (one hour or even two hour-long lessons, just one, two or three contacts per week) means that only the best pupils have a chance of making serious progress. Don’t forget to tell your students that in science, no-one expects you be a Newton or Einstein; similarly in languages, you cannot expect to speak like like a French person in five years. Professor Eric Hawkins said that teaching a language is like “gardening in a gale” – you plant your seeds and then the seedlings are blown away by the gale of English from one lesson to the next. The biggest motivator I have come across for pupils is the visit abroad, especially the exchange format.

We have a hard task in many schools trying to share our skill and enthusiasm, but the fact that we can still produce many skilled and enthusiastic linguists despite all the obstacles should reassure us. If we are demanding, sensitive to pupils’ needs and pragmatic we can achieve a lot.