Not Yesterday’s Language Instruction
Published: January 10, 2017
Think back to your high school Spanish, German, or French class and consider:
Did you enjoy it?
Did you successfully learn the language?
Can you easily use it now?
It’s a good bet your high school language class focused on conjugating verbs, memorizing vocabulary lists, and studying the various elements of language structure. With no disrespect to your teacher, that grammar-based approach was all good and well - but did it lead to actual proficiency in the language? The fact of the matter is that even very intelligent adults will find it difficult to acquire language using a grammar-based approach. The same holds true for adolescents. And young children simply cannot learn language this way.
Shifting Focus Away from Grammar for More Efficient Language Development
There is a better approach to language learning. Thankfully for the next generation of learners, it’s less complicated and less painful than memorizing vocabulary words and confusing grammar rules. The so-called communicative approach is natural, straightforward, and even fun. Most importantly, it leads to proficiency.
How does this approach succeed where the grammar approach fails, especially for young learners? Quite simply, the focus shifts away from the grammar and toward the learner, and specifically what they are trying to express or understand. It’s meaningful and it’s effective. The shift in focus away from study of the language structure delivers a myriad of benefits.
The communicative approach uses language patterns to communicate real needs. Children build a memory bank of such patterns, naturally retrieving them each time they need to convert needs into expression. The more they experience a pattern within a meaningful context, the better they retain it in their memory. Continued use builds fluency—the easier and faster they can retrieve the patterns, the more fluent they become.
Communicative Approach Accelerates Language Development for ESL and LEP Students
Educators serving ESL and LEP populations know the goal has to be to move children out of the at-risk category into proficiency. The needle has to be turned as quickly and efficiently as possible. A well-constructed communicative approach will not waste time and confuse the student teaching grammatical sentence structures she will not or cannot use. Instead, the focus switches to establishing and reinforcing the various language patterns necessary for communication. It’s fun, it’s efficient, and it fast tracks language development.
Paradoxically, moving away from the grammar-based approach to a communicative approach (wherein grammatical structures are in fact rigorously employed, though not formally taught) actually assures proper grammatical usage. It’s a win from every perspective. Even your high school language teacher would be happy!
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