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Reading & Writing

Miguel Witte - article, written may 2008:
The following article was published by "English Teaching Professional" in 2008.
The pdf-version of this article can be downloaded.

Learning for life

Download Miguel Witte: "Learning for Life" - English Teaching Professional

An expression commonly heard when people are discussing the challenges of lifelong learning in an ever-changing society is "learning to learn". But what are the implicactions for the classroom? Is there a set of useful ideas which can be applied to language learning in order to make it more effective.?

Learning by memory

Learning by memory is not very fashionable nowadays, having earned a bad reputation over the years for being repetitive and thus boring. Those who dislike it claim that it doesnīt involve active thinking. Nonetheless, it seems views on memorisation may be changing. It has been pointed out that in the process of learning a language, memorisation gives relief to the brain when it comes to active use of the foreign language. For example, large sections of everyday conversations are made of chunks of language (e.g How are you? Iīm fine) which are used again and again. The better learners know these chunks, the easier it is for them to speak fluently. If students have stored these expressions successfully in their memories, they will be able to retrieve them easily. They can thus simply focus on the content of a conversation and donīt have to use their brains to think about how to say certain things in their own words. The more elements (vocabulary, expressions, etc) that are available in the memories of language learners, the higher their capacity to combine an use these elements correctly and with fluency. It is, therefore, important to make students realise that they have to build up language resources by memory in order to be able to rely on them. It is also important to provide classroom activities which focus on learning by memory - not in a military style drill, but in an interesting and challenging way.

How to remember better

It has been pointed out by psychologists that we learn and remember better the more our senses are involved. This approach has the potential for making studentsīvocabulary learning much more productive. Suppose there is a new word to be learnt: trousers. A student can: a) Listen to the word (auditory) b) Look at a picture or imagine a picture which represents the meaning of the word (visual) c) say the word out loud (ie do something active with the word as well as listen to it) d) Write down the word (ie do something active with the word, look at it and read it).

The more our senses are involved in learning a new word, the better the word itself will be anchored in the brain. One helpful technique, based on this idea, would be to encourage students to make flashcards for new vocabulary which present the word in a short context and are accompanied by a drawing: For example:

The actual preparation of these cards by individual students is part of the learning process itself. By then looking at a card, the student can remember the word and the context. Going through a certain number of flashcards on a daily basis should also involve saying the context sentence with the new word aloud and at the same time picturing its content in the imagination (eg: a fashionalbe shop with lots of pink trousers)

How to avoid forgetting

Suppose you want to learn a poem by heart. It doesnīt really make a difference whether you repeat the poem ten or 50 times in each sitting. Before you start the next repetition you will have forgotten, in either case, more or less the same amount of content (usually about 50 per cent). This was demonstrated by the German scholar Hermann Ebbinghaus, who in 1855 developed the so-called "forgetting-curve", based on a series of studies and practical experiments. In order to avoid forgetting, he proposed a continuous repetition exercise, where the emphasis is put on `continuousī. In our example, you should repeat the poem ten times a day and not 50. After a couple of days, you can start repeating it every two days and in the coming periods the time-gaps can increase. As a general rule for learning, it can be said that learning new content with a smaller amount of repetition on a regular basis is more efficient than devoting more time to a larger amount of repetition on fewer occasions.

The relevance of this for the classroom is that we can employ systematic repetition of all kinds of content in a large variety of ways over long periods of time in order to anchor it properly in the students memories. Suppose you have a list with a certain number of irregular verbs. One day, you describe the activities the verbs represent and ask the sutdents for the verbs. The next day, you ask every student to say one irregular verb and you yourself describe the meaning of that verb. The next time, you let the students work in paris, having one student say an irregular verb and the other describe the meaning, changing roles each time. In the next class, you repeat the verbs and ask the students to draw pictures of the activities. Some weeks later, you go over them again, saying, for example, "go ... went ... " and letting the students complete the sequence with "gone". Alternatively you could just say "go" and get the students to complete the sequence with "went" and "gone". In my own experience, students generally find it both challenging and stimulating when they have to remember something, and there is also a great deal of pleasure involved when they realise how good their memories are.

Resting productively

Neuroscientists have discovered that learning something new leads to increased interconnection in the neural network. Knowing this fact doesnīt in itself make learning easier, but it is useful to know that learning is based on mental effort and leads to a more highly developed and better connected network of neuron synapses. Learning can, therefore, be compared to sport, which requires training and leads to muscle development. It is useful to be aware of this, especially when you think about the many advertisements which claim to teach students a forereign langauge without any kind of effort.

It has been shown that the actual building of these new connections between neurons happens mainly after the learning process itself has finished. In order to exploit this and make the new connections happen, it is vital that students should not study for too long and should have a period of rest in which no large mental efforts are made in order to allow the connections to form.

Getting involved

When children learn their mother tongue, the whole language learning process is made easy and natural because everything that is said refers to concrete things or actions which are present in the childrenīs lives. A parent will ask "Do you want toast or cereal for breakfast?" and there will be real cereal and a real slice of toast on the breakfast table which reinforce the childīs learning.

Learning a language in the classroom often requires setting up an artificial or imagined context. For example, a teacher might say "Suppose you want to persuade your friends to go to the cinema. Present your arguments to them using the following expressions...." without having real friends or a real cinema around.

This is OK and for the sake of learning there is often no other way. Nonetheless, I have observed over the years that the best students are those who are, in their real lives, involved in a project related to the language they are learning.

When I was teaching German, one of my students was given a scholarship to a German university and was, therefore, extremely motivated and eager to increase his listening and speaking ability. Another student worked in the export department of a computer manufacturing company and had to deal with his German clients on the telephone and by mail. He was very motivated and picked up many words and expressions from dealing with his German counterparts. For two years I taught German to a student who played chess at a semi-professional level and wanted to read chess books written in German. Another student started an email freindship with someone from Germany and benefitted greatly from this extra language input.

I think it is important to pay attention to the individual motivations of students. What are their personal projects and goals? What do they want to achieve with the new language in real life? It might be anything from understanding computer progamm help-files written in English to singing songs in English in a local music club. Whatever their motivation, it is important to take note of it and to encourage them to go ahead and advance in their chosen field of interest.

Lifelong learning

A few years ago, the German weekly "Der Spiegel" published an article about the latest discoveries in neuroscience with regard to age. It has long been assumed that learning new things is more or less the privilege of young people. As people grow older, it is supposed that their capacity to learn diminishes. Evidence has now been found that this assumptions is not actually correct and it is, in fact, very much the other way round. Even if the learning involves something that is new, the brain will respond to this learning activity at any age by building and forming the necessary neural connections. This is good news for lifelong learning in that it means that nobody should ever be discouraged simply because of their age from undertaking the fascinating challenge of learning a foreign language.

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