English through content: beyond learning English

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The shift from “language learning” to “language acquisition” has had a major impact on our knowledge of foreign language learning and consequently on our teaching practice.

 In the last two decades we have seen that the difference that Krashen claimed in the early 1990s between learning and acquisition was much more than a good hunch. According to Krashen, acquisition is when the language is “absorbed” by interacting with the real world, such as when we learn our native language.

Today it is known in the ELT profession that the process of learning a language requires not only an intensive but a contextualized communicative practice.

A communicative practice detached from a real and relevant context for our students will only lead us to a rote learning of English condemned to the failure of the development of oral expression. Today there is no doubt that the context is essential to achieve the acquisition of a language.

So, we must keep in mind the following keywords for successful language teaching: language acquisition, intensive communicative practice, context, and sustained motivation.

Although we know from the practice of the Communicative method that our methodology should not focus on the analysis of the language but on its use, we commonly get somewhat caught up in the teaching of grammar rules, applying exercises and using vocabulary lists, or in the memorization of dialogues that overshadow a genuine communicative practice.

A sure way to reverse these results is to change our approach to learning the language, putting it as a result of learning something new and relevant to our students, that helps them expand their knowledge or general culture.

When the English language is used as a vehicle for learning new non-linguistic content, we obtain these important results:

  • Authentic communicative practice will occur by having students exchange important information about the content that is being learned with each other.
  • When receiving information, whether in videos, readings or talks, students will have valuable inputs that will enhance the acquisition of the language, as well as the development of the communication skills necessary to handle information not adapted to their level of knowledge of the language.
  • The subject worked will be the powerful context for the acquisition of language.
  • Student motivation will increase.

How to start?

Let us consider that most of the textbooks used follow the traditional approach of learning the language through the study of the language itself.

Although some series of textbooks include a greater number of communicative activities, they cannot stop transmitting the perception of a parameterized study that is not associated with an experiential learning experience.

This is a serious limitation since underneath that feeling, the student is demotivated and gives up his/her study.

It is therefore important to start with small but firm steps. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Include at least, every two weeks, a class session developed around a topic of interest relevant to your students.
  2. If your students have read a topic in the textbook that has piqued their interest, make it possible to delve deeper into that topic in the next class. For example, present a short video on the topic or minutes of a TED talk or other material that gets your students’ interest. Create worksheets for group work and ask each group to obtain different information on the topic presented.
  3. Then encourage an exchange of information between groups that leads all the class to build learning about the new topic. This activity should not last more than 40 minutes.

As your students work, observe the powerful results of the activity. You will appreciate how the activity arouses the interest of the students, how they use English to communicate in a more natural and genuine way, how it increases their motivation and, above all, how they become aware of their ability to learn something new in English. This last feeling  is priceless.

 

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