Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Second Language Teaching Methodologies

Research in second language acquisition reveals there is much debate about the learning of second languages and indeed, the question of whether second languages are learnt or acquired has perplexed academics for many years. Harold Palmer (1921) was first credited with questioning the difference between what he terms as ‘spontaneous’ and ‘studial’ capabilities of language learners (Harmer 2007). Palmer suggested that spoken language calls for spontaneous capabilities developed naturally and subconsciously as opposed to studial capabilities that are required for the development of literacy. Stephen Krashen (1984) the American linguist, proposes what he refers to as the Acquisition and Learning Hypothesis. Krashen suggests that acquisition refers to language that has been acquired subconsciously in an anxiety free state. He indicates that acquired language provides for the ability to use language in spontaneous conversation because it is instantly available on demand. Krashen goes on to propose that learnt language has been taught and studied as grammar or vocabulary, and that this knowledge of the language is only useful in helping us to monitor spontaneous communication. His view contends that acquired language and learnt language are different both in character and effect (Harmer, 2007).

When examining the distinction between subconscious acquisition and conscious learning of a second language Krashen draws our attention to what he calls comprehensible input. He explains that this refers to input that is roughly tuned (subconsciously moderated) that the student already has plus the next level up, much like the area that Vygotsky (1978) refers to as the Zone of Proximal Development, where students are asked to study information just slightly beyond their knowledge range, through which they are supported by the teacher to reach that new level of knowledge. Krashen argues that roughly-tuned input aids acquisition whereas finely-tuned input (such as that which makes up much traditional language instruction) does not. (Harmer, 2007)

De Ridder (et al 2007) cites Segalowitz (2003) who suggests that automaticity, that is the more efficient, more accurate and more stable performance of language, is achieved through the repeated creative use of the language rules taught in a context of authentic communication. They go on to assert that this automaticity may be enhanced by ensuring that communicative processes develop both structured repetition and the creative transfer of knowledge items (De Ridder et al, 2007). If this view is accepted then the second language learner may possibly acquire what is considered automaticity in the second language when the focus is neither on language form or language forms, but in fact a blend of both and that continuing development of the language rules and the authentic use of them when communicating will eventually result in the successful ‘acquisition’ of the second language.

In attempting to understand how learners acquire/learn a second language it is important to examine learning theory in greater detail. For many years the theory of behaviourism, based on the early work of the physiologist Pavlov (1849-1936) underpinned teaching practice (Mergel, 1998). Behaviourism focuses on repeating a new behaviour until it becomes automatic. In language learning, students demonstrate the three stage process of behaviourist theory; stimulus, response and reinforcement when they are asked to repeat sentences correctly, and are rewarded for their correctness (Harmer, 2007). When this occurs frequently the learner is conditioned to produce the language effectively. It can be asserted that the traditional Grammar Translation Method (GTM) and the Audio Lingual Method (ALM) demonstrate a behaviourist approach as they require learners to memorise correct forms/rules by repetition, and because they both attempt to eliminate errors that learners make. (Yokoyama, 2009)

On the other hand an alternate learning theory is posited, that of cognitivism where the act of learning language is seen as a mental process. Cognitive theorists view learning as “..involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information." (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187 cited in Mergel, 2001). The more contemporary second language learning methodology referred to as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is an example of cognitivist learning theory, as learners are involved in meaning-focused communicative tasks where they construct the language required to complete the task. This methodology asserts the essential belief that plentiful exposure to language in use and multiple opportunities to use it are vitally important in developing not just knowledge of the target language, but also the skill of using the target language (Harmer, 2007). What is apparent is that language learning may be facilitated by either utilising a behaviourist or a cognitive approach, based on different learner styles and different teaching styles. (Yokoyama, 2009)

Much discussion surrounds the differences and similarities of learner attributes and reference to the analogy ‘older is faster, but younger is better’ (Krashen, 1984 cited in Harmer, 2007) represents a paradigm of how different learners learn. There is some evidence that younger children may have greater control of pronunciation than older learners (Patkowski, 1982 cited in Bista, 2008), however more recent research has begun to show that there is no linear pattern of learning among the same age group of learners, and they learn differently and individually depending on variables like learning opportunities, the motivation to learn, individual differences and learning styles in second language acquisition (Bista, 2008).

In addressing the question of how best to assist learners in developing second language acquisition the target context of this paper is early education and specifically a learner aged 5.2 years. Genesee (1994) recognises that students in an early childhood setting find it difficult to learn new language skills which refer to abstract concepts, cognitive operations or experiences which are not yet part of their intellectual repertoire, and that they should first be given opportunities to learn language through experiences that are compatible with their current abilities and knowledge.

Marzano & Pickering (1997) in their teaching and learning framework Dimensions of Learning (DoL) claim that many cognitive psychologists believe that knowledge can be organised into two basic categories: knowledge referred to as declarative knowledge, demonstrated in language learning by the study of the language forms, such as meaning of vocabulary, grammatical rules, pronunciation; and procedural knowledge, that is knowledge that demonstrates performance, demonstrated in language learning by the ability to use language to communicate meaning. They contend that students need to not only be able to perform the steps of a specific process, but that they need to have knowledge or understanding about the topic to obtain useful results. If you accept Marzano & Pickering’s view then the successful second language learner will have both knowledge of the target language grammatical rules, vocabulary, pronunciation and the ability to successfully use the language to actively construct meaning.

So, how then can the Learning Manager best achieve both categories of knowledge described? Various methodologies have been applied to the learning of second languages. Traditionally second language learning methodologies have focused on teaching individual points of grammar by providing sentences that typify the specific grammar point, requiring the learner to translate from the target language to the student’s first language and back again. GTM is still widely used and in fact represents a cultural preference for some, as has been shown in Japan with the reluctance of educators and learners alike to abandon this traditional method, despite its apparent failure to produce the level of English communication skills considered desirable (Reesor, 2003).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the pure translation method largely gave way to the Direct method, which favoured the teacher and the student speaking together but with the move away from translation, to the point of avoiding first language use at all (Harmer, 2007). Liu and Shi (2007) suggest that the failings of the direct method centre on two questions, that of how to safeguard against misunderstanding without translating, and secondly the suggestion that this method limits teaching to those who are native speakers or have native-like fluency in the foreign language being taught.

These traditional methods and those that evolved from them have focused on the development of declarative knowledge, that is knowledge of the language forms. However it has been recognised by some academics that the general limitation of these methods is the lack of focus on the ability to construct spoken language, or to the processes of using it (Howatt, 1984 cited in Bygate, 2000)

More recently contemporary methods of second language learning have focused on language teaching as a communicative function rather than on pure mastery of structures and grammar. This movement is demonstration of a shift in focus from declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge; that is the process to construct meaningful communication using the target language. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is considered at the opposite end of a communication continuum (Harmer, 2007) as it targets language learning by focusing on developing a purpose for communicating, the content of what is being conveyed, and the use of a variety of language structures. CLT theorists consider that for learning to be enhanced there needs to be an information gap between the knowledge of the communicating participants, and it is in the process of closing this gap that true communication takes place. Liu and Shi (2007) suggest that CLT makes language learning more interesting, helps develop linguistic competence as well as communicative competence, that is knowledge of what to say, to whom in what circumstances, and how to say it (Hymes, 1967). Canale & Swain (1980) suggest that a communicative approach to second language acquisition must be based on the learners communication needs. They contend that communicative competence; that is linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence is the goal of language acquisition and this goal can be met by creating appropriate activities that truly promote communication within the classroom. Some activities that might be suitable in this target context include but are not limited to turn-taking games, categorizing games and picture sequencing games.

Criticism of the CLT method suggests that this method is prejudiced in favour of native-speaker teachers as it requires a controlled range of language use by the teacher to respond to the variety of language problems which may occur (Harmer, 2007). There is also confusion over what truly defines a communicative approach and there are questions around the suitability of applying this method at all levels in teaching; the evaluation process of this method; and how suitably it can be delivered by non-native teachers (Liu and Shi, 2007).

Other methods worthy of discussion include the Task-Based Learning (TBL) method. This methodology manifests the ideology of CLT however it places the performance of meaningful tasks as central to the learning process (Harmer, 2007). In proposing to teach English as a second language to a very young learner (four to five years of age) this methodology fails to provide an adequate framework because as Michael Swan (1985) considers, that while TBL may develop learners command of what is known, it is considerably less effective for the systematic teaching of new language (Swan 1985 cited in Harmer, 2007), and to that end is not suitable as an effective method in this instance. Total Physical Response (TPR) is one of four methods developed in the 1970’s and 80’s. TPR involves having students respond to commands and when ready, giving instructions to other classmates. Asher (1977 cited in Harmer, 2007) believes that as children learn a lot of their language in response to instructions directed at them, then second language learners might benefit from this technique also. For very young learners this method may well be productive when delivered playfully. Alcock and Cullen (2008) contend that children are empowered when communication is humorous and playful.

In proposing how to teach a second language in the target context described, it is the personal belief of the author that the CLT method provides the most appropriate methodology to guide the learner in developing communicative competence. The age of the learner limits the effectiveness of pursuing the Grammar Translation Method due to the developmental limitations of the target student however the Audio Linguistic Method provides a framework for facilitating repetitive type drills as an introduction to the lexical structure of the English language. Critics of the ALM claim that there is little placing of language in any kind of real-life context, but the author is of the opinion that this failing can be addressed by using a blend of meaningful communicative tasks and repetitious drills delivered in a play context. Task based learning is considered unsuitable due to the lack of life experiences of the learner and the need to learn new language, not just improve the use of known language. The alternate theory of Total Physical Response is considered appropriate due to the age and developmental level of the learner. TPR also facilitates the ability to design activities that the learner may consider play. Guy Cook observes “..people are playing when they say and believe they are playing” (Cook, 2000 cited in Pomerantz & Bell, 2007, p 558). He asserts that being able to understand and produce playful language is a necessary art of advanced language proficiency (Cook, 2000 cited in Pomerantz & Bell, 2007).

The Dimensions of Learning (DoL) teaching and learning framework develops a model utilising what researchers and theorists know about teaching and learning. It is vital for the student to be comfortable and free of anxiety during the language learning experiences, as observed by Krashen (1984 cited in Harmer, 2007). Opportunities to acquire, integrate, extend and refine the new knowledge can be created by developing a blend of communicative tasks by using game play, and the opportunity for repetition and practice through ‘playing’ with TPR and ALM. Problem solving activities developed using picture cards as memory games offer the opportunity for the student to use the knowledge meaningfully as they articulate what items have been matched. Encouraging students to think critically, creatively and to self regulate their thinking is an overarching desire of the Learning Manager in all encounters with learners. There is a clear and detailed link between this framework and the preferred methodologies discussed for use within this target context.

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