Teaching New Language: When Should We Pre-Teach New Language and Why Should We Recycle Language?
The other day, a student who was completing the Introduction to TEFL/TESOL: English Language Teaching Concepts on ELTCampus got in contact with me. They’re busy gearing up with their CELTA preparation course and asked a good question. In each of the modules we take an opportunity to go in and see a classroom in action. In this case it was a receptive skills lesson – that means the learners needed to listen to something and do something in response to what they heard.
The question from my online student was:
“Hi, I noticed that in the class observation video, the teacher didn’t pre-teach the ADJECTIVES of the task. I reckon the students already knew those. If they hadn’t, should she have taught them first? “
You’re right. There could be different reasons why she didn’t present the adjectives first as new language to focus on:
- She hasn’t thought her lesson through and didn’t organise a way to present this new language – bad reason.
- She could safely assume at this language level the learners would’ve been exposed to these adjectives before – this is using common sense: If they already know it, don’t teach it.
- She knows for a fact that they have been exposed to these adjectives in either a previous activity within the lesson, or an activity or lesson a few days ago. So, she is consciously recycling the language.
Teaching new language: should we pre-teach vocabulary before an activity?
Pre-teaching vocabulary is a classic CELTA Method. It is also taught in other pre-service TEFL certificates. I’ve done it and I confess in my early days as a teacher that I have tried to cover all the language possible to cover the task. It wasn't a good look.
2 very good reasons not to do it:
- The Creeping Death: Doing it this way can turn your lesson into a form of torture, both for yourself and the students. You lose rhythm, focus and motivation - and that’s just you, the teacher.
- Learner Autonomy: It doesn’t train learners to handle real-life situations with this new language. How will they learn those really important survival techniques to deal with unknown language without us holding their hand, if we are busy giving them all the answers and cushioning them all the time?
If you want to pre-teach some language, do it carefully and moderately. Use basic good design principles and you’ll be sweet:
Good design Principle: For something to function, what is the minimum essential requirement? No more, no less.
ELT Equivalent: To do the task effectively, what is the minimum they need to know? What can be guessed from context?
Teaching new language: what is Recycling Language? And Why Should We Do It?
Recycling target language is important for language learning. Take a language learning app like Duolingo for example. Apps like these use algorithms to apply this technique of exposing you to new language and testing you on it, again and again, in different ways.
When the programme sees that you are getting it and using it correctly most of the time, it will cause this language to show up less frequently. It continues to until the point when you get it right 100% of the time. Then it drops presenting this language to you almost completely. It safely assumes that the language learning has stuck.
Why does Repetition Work in Language Learning?
We know this is effective based on what we know of the brain and short and long-term memory. Repetition is needed to move new knowledge from the short-term memory across to the more stable long-term memory. However, the quality of that repetition does play a part.
Disengaged, decontextualized or robotic repetition will not be as effective as engaged, mindful and contextualised repetition and recycling. More on mindful repetition
What Affects Our Memory, Handling of New Concepts and Language Production
What learning apps can’t always deal with is the fact that humans aren’t binary beings. It’s not always a case that a piece of language has been learned in the programming sense:
Learned = true or false
If true, then true = forever
Else, try again.
Some days we get stuff, we can produce the language, other days for unfathomable or endlessly varied reasons, we can’t. Many factors, such as stress, tiredness and confidence affect our language learning and production. It’s something only teachers can pick up on and react sensitively to…for now.