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From Social Learning Theories to Group Language Classes

From Social Learning Theories to Group Language Classes

There’s always a lot of debate about how much academic theory trickles down into language teaching. I have selected influential learning theories that show why and how group lessons have got where they are today. These also suggest approaches for things like classroom management, correction and when to present new language.   

  1. Zone of Proximal Development (Lev Vygotsky, 1925)

This theory suggests we connect new things we learn to what we already know and that learning something more distant or less connected is harder. We can only learn some things alone, but with support from another person (more knowledgeable other) or specialised tasks or tools (scaffolding), we can extend our range of learning. As well as suggesting learners need each other, this warns that if you overstretch students alone or without good task support or guidance, they will become lost or turned off to the learning.  

  1. Negotiation of Meaning (Michael Long, 1981)

To activate their knowledge of a second language, students need to produce as well as modify what they are saying. This pressures students to recall the language they know as well as refine and adapt it as they communicate with others. Teachers often correct students by getting them to rephrase what they said so it is clear. However, allowing them to negotiate meaning with another student is more productive because the student needs to make their meaning clear to another who otherwise does not understand. Long’s work points to this being an effective and authentic way of learning.  

  1. The output hypothesis (Merril Swain, 1985)

The idea here is that what matters most in learning is the language students produce (together). Students creatively construct language – often together in response to another speaker. Here they can see what works, notice language that builds a connection with who they are speaking to, and they are more likely to notice errors in the language they produce. This makes language learning more personal in a way but also focuses on creating meaning with others. For this to work, recording a presentation and playing it back to yourself to spot errors would be less effective than working on a presentation with a partner that you both then share with others.  

  1. Complexity theory (Diane Larsen – Freeman, 1997)

Language learning is not a simple pre-set progression of learning and mastering one form after another. Although students build up their language layer on layer, no two students acquire a language the same way. Cognitive abilities, skills, and social interactions influence a student’s pace of language learning. This reminds us that learners may use different language skills and forms to complete the same tasks and that your classes will always have a ‘knowledge gap’ or a ‘skills gap’ that is useful in student-to-student learning.   

Like I said, second language acquisition theory (SLA) is nothing if it isn’t controversial. Theories in 5-10 years’ time will likely contradict some of these points and support others. These ideas come from classroom practice, so what do you think? 

 Are there any specific teaching techniques that you use which stem from these theories? 

Are there any techniques you feel work which go against these ideas? 


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