This is the second installment in a article series called English Language Learning Strategies. To view the first article click here.
When learning a language, there are three major factors at play: memory, cognitive functions, and compensation. The first article in this series, titled English Language Learning Strategies: Improve Memory, targeted memory. I definitely recommend checking that out before you continue reading, as it provides a good basis for talking about language learning strategies.
Here is an excerpt from the other article to refresh your memory on what language learning strategies actually are:
An English language learning strategy is an intentional and deliberate approach to overcoming a language challenge, which is, in this case, remembering. Strategies shouldn’t be confused with processes, which are universal and pervasive, such as identifying, categorizing, or associating. They also shouldn’t be confused with learning styles, which are specific and limited, such as relying on visuals, paying attention to details, or learning through doing.
In the classroom, learning strategies can take a variety of forms. Nevertheless, they always help the student acquire, store, retrieve, or use information or language. They’re specific actions that the learner takes to solve a problem and to make learning easier, more effective, more enjoyable, more independent, etc.
A cognitive strategy involves the manipulation and/or transformation of the target language by the learner. What this means is that your students have to think about the language. They have to be able to mentally manipulate and change basic language structures and rules.
If your students are struggling to apply what they’ve learned in class to their daily language needs, it could be because of their inability to manipulate the language to fit their needs. Focusing on these cognitive strategies will allow your learners to comprehend and produce new language in many different ways, not just explicitly in the way that you’ve taught them.
Check out the four different techniques for targeting your students' cognitive language abilities and the specific strategies below.
Practicing language is incredibly important when learning a language, and opportunities in the classroom are often missed because we use practice as busy work. There are many different ways to practice language that will engage each and every one of your learners. Things like repeating words, listening, practicing sounds, and fill-in-the-blank activities all help students to practice language that they’ve learned.
However, the activities above are base-level practicing strategies. Though they are necessary to practice things that are newly learned, language practice should implement a variety of skills, such as having your students participate in a conversation, read an article, or write a letter to their senator. Find ways for your students to practice not just vocabulary, but also listening skills, grammar, and pronunciation. If language is multi-faceted, practicing language should be as well.
ACTIVITY: If working on conversation skills, split your students into two even groups. Have one group stand in a circle facing inwards, and have the other group stand in a circle in the middle facing outwards. Each student is standing in front of another; everyone has a partner. The students in the outside circle are given a slip of paper with a job title (cashier, bank teller, business executive, etc) and are told to conduct themselves accordingly. The students on the inside circle must greet their partner and maintain a 2-5 minute conversation, depending upon their job title. Have students switch roles and switch partners a few times in order to keep the activity fresh.
Receiving and Sending Messages:
The language learning strategy of receiving and sending messages is a necessary tool for both language learning and language use. Language is based on the transferring of information; there is no other reason to use language! Therefore, our students should be able to use whatever means necessary to understand messages quickly so that they will be able to produce their own messages.
The two main methods for doing this are skimming or scanning and using resources. These methods allow students to identify the main ideas or key points in a text or piece of audio.
ACTIVITY: Students are given a lengthy article and are allowed 5 minutes to skim the article and identify the 3 most important things that the writer is trying to communicate. After the time is up, take the articles away and put the students into groups of 3-4. They must discuss with one another what they identified as most important. As a group, have them decide upon one main message and share it with the class. If your students are wary of choosing the main message without having an abundance of time to study the article, give your students the text of a motivational speech and have them identify what they felt was the most important part of the speech. Changing the text from an article to a motivational piece can lessen the fear of being wrong.
Analyzing and Reasoning:
Adult learners are already pretty good at analyzing and reasoning; however, it is sometimes to a fault. Students who try to “reason out” new language by comparing/contrasting the language to their native tongue have discovered an invaluable tool. Yet they may be at risk of overgeneralizing. As a teacher, it’s important to help your students balance their analysis of English. To do this you can help them to reason deductively (from general rules to specific situations), analyze inductively (from specific situations to general rules), compare/contrast to their native language, or translate from one language to another.
ACTIVITY: Give your students a sheet of idioms and have them work in small groups or with a partner to guess at what the idioms mean. Stress to them that this is a fun activity and that idioms are tricky to figure out. It can be funny to hear what each student group comes up with and it two things at once: the skill of analyzing inductively (by breaking down an expression) and the fact that that this strategy cannot always be depended upon. After all, what happens when you try to break down the phrase, “out of the blue?"
Creating Structures for Input and Output:
When students are bombarded by endless sources of language, such as radio, tv, film, books, conversations, signage, etc, they may be easily overwhelmed. The best way to combat this is through teaching your students to create structure for language input and output. These types of strategies allow learners to receive information, process it, and put it into use. It’s the glue that holds language learning, understanding, and production together. Activities such as note-taking, summarizing passages, and highlighting key points help students to manipulate the language into understandable and usable structures.
ACTIVITY: If you’re working with ESL students who do not have an academic background (who may not know how to take notes well), teach them how to take notes with graphic organizers. Have your students read an article or listen to a lecture and take notes within a graphic organizer. Include a space for new vocabulary, key points, questions they may have, and things that are meaningful. Brainstorm different categories that will be helpful for your students life circumstances. Before having them read/listen, go over the graphic organizer and do a practice run with a short text, so that everyone is on the same page.
These four cognitive skills and their accompanying strategies can greatly improve your students' ability to understand, manipulate, and produce new language.
So far in this series we've covered memory and cognitive functions. Focusing on these language learning strategies in your classroom can help your students throughout their journey of learning English. Teaching a second language can be tricky, but knowing how to teach certain concepts and how to help your students connect with the information can make a world of a difference.
I Want to Hear From You!
Have you struggled with getting your students to engage with new language you've taught them? How have you overcome this?
What one activity or strategy would you like to target in your classroom over the next few weeks?