Stephen Krashen

The classroom, language acquisition and Stephen Krashen

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I think a few of you can recall I mentioned Stephen Krashen a few times and his theory on comprehensible input.  Of course, time is always with us over the two days, so I am always reticent to talk too long about certain theories, although I hope I do highlight it efficiently and effectively. So, I have written a few extra notes on language acquisition, the classroom and Krashen and his approach and theory that will hopefully make you think more about what goes on in the learning environment and the approach you take in teaching the students.

To begin with, an EFL instructor can be a fantastic teacher but how does he/she know if the students are ‘acquiring the language’ in the way they should be which is natural and not forced.  ‘Acquiring language’ is one of the salient points in children’s actual acquisition of a language. It is a fact that children, in natural settings, learn language rapidly and without formal instruction. Children are not given formal education when they are very young yet they acquire their language progressively to being fluent. It makes me think of some Thai schools I worked in where they barrage the students with grammar that is in such a formal setting that doesn’t leave any room for talking. The students can be very good at grammar but cannot speak and quite a few seem very shy also. Furthermore, if the students are not relaxed in the classroom (the setting) the teacher cannot expect them to learn. You would hope they learn their second language the same as their first language in a natural way where children never felt the language was demanding or never felt pressured and weren’t inhibited to use it.

The classroom as a setting I think should not be a place that is far from reality such that students can only speak in the classroom not outside where it is most important. I think that as a teacher the authenticity of the teacher’s teaching and the classroom has to be right so as to enlighten the learning experience. The issue here is students often learn their second language through constant grammar study so the similarity between it being similar to a natural, childhood, first language acquisition and later second language acquisition is not apparent. Thus creating a real classroom experience is a must for the students. The use of real objects, pictures, videos, roleplays, situations, even field trips (not forgetting the teacher/facilitator’s approach) to get the feeling that the students will use this language outside the classroom in numerous settings is a must.

Stephen Krashen whose ‘acquisition theory’ is used in teaching, states that ‘language learners need language ‘input’ which consists of new language along with clues as to what the language means’. As a teacher, you should follow this path that allows the students to speak in class while giving them that little bit more to expand their language. The teacher should build on what the students already know. I think this normal delivery of speech and with ‘hands-on’ language acquisition experience facilitates the natural learning process. If you remember when you were a child and your parents never really gave you a formal education in language acquisition, here lies comprehensible input that naturally supplies children: it is slower and simpler. Moreover, it focuses on the here and now, it focuses on meaning over form, and it extends and elaborates on the child’s language.

I think the students should not be treated like kids but you should allow the students to speak and acquire more language as they use their already known language such that the process will follow that the students will acquire more in your interesting natural approach classes.

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Would you select a prescriptive or descriptive method of teaching grammar?

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There are of course different ideas from different people and no way can be thought of as the ultimate for learning. Although this is said, I would certainly lean towards a more descriptive method of teaching. A descriptive method can relate to the abundance of people who speak the language where it is noticed that in the global world mostly everyone needs to speak some sort of English. This also relates to countries which are very multicultural. We can not say that every one of these conversers speaks complete standard English. I will keep away from saying correct English as I think there no exact correct way to speak. A descriptive method of teaching can be favored which allows a teacher to extract exact meaning from conversation not extracting from sentences as this could be relating back to a prescriptive form where there is a formal education that does not intrinsically allow for students’ conversational construction. One question would be; does the speaker need to be perfect grammatically to get their message across.

England, you would think after many years of using the language, the population would adhere to a ‘standard’ form of speech, but it is probably spoken natively by about 10% of the population. This was a guesstimate by Peter Trudgill. So, it shows simply being a native speaker of English is not a qualification for setting up as an EFL teacher; however well you speak it. The students as well as the teacher need to be aware of the situation they are in and how they should use their language the best. A language teacher can teach the students a prescriptive grammar, but on the whole grammar and language is continually in transgression. The importance of English as the language of communication nationally and internationally must input the importance of meaning. For example, Stephen Krashen wrote,”acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.” (S. Krashen, 1981)

Of course, there are a few problems with prescriptive grammar as it only prescribes to one way of speaking. This could well be a model to rely on and teachers would be wrong to ignore the standard grammar, but to say that an English speaking person is wrong in the way they colloquially speak could well lower some learning ability. Descriptive linguistics will tell you that they do not raise questions about who is right and who is wrong, or about who has the right to adjudicate. There will be teachers and parents who will certainly tell you to speak properly, but in most cases, this would be when it is more formal occasions where you must be polite. This does mean that a person will always be in a formal occasion where ‘standard’ English is needed.  There is a time and a place for using formal and non-formal language. The students need also to work this out for themselves. They need to be problem solvers. The teacher needs to put them in these social positions through role-play so the students can find out for themselves how to act. This perspective views teaching as a “conversation” in which teachers and students learn together through a process of negotiation with the curriculum to develop a shared view of the world

English is very heavily codified for non-native learners. Prescriptive grammar actually takes away the forms of English that a lot of other people use. Of course, the use of grammar is to get the right point across. For example, if someone is on the phone and they asked for a pencil. An answer could be ‘a pencil is on the table’. Although this answers the question the appropriateness of the answer is not sufficient.  This relates to the meaning of grammar and how we use the language. People do use different structures. There is one problem that students will take their dictionary into the class and once they have a problem they will consult it. This does not accept their authority on meaning or grammar. For example, students will learn the ‘dead’ which is the right word for someone who has died. The sentence ‘he is dead’ is correct grammatically but would a policeman say this to the unfortunate person who he has to tell about their unfortunate relative. He, of course, would choose his words carefully as to try to lessen the strength of the sentence using ‘he has passed away’. From this little example, it is very clear that the children must be taught English and when to use it. Students should be taught that language varies. This shows the movement away from the prescriptive grammar. There is certainly a flexibility in the language and the choices of sentences for every occasion and how they and their ideas are perceived by the receiver. It has also to be said that people do not speak in complete sentences and can jump from one subject to another rapidly.  Students need to be aware of speaking appropriately in different contexts, adapting their talk for a range of purposes and audiences including variants of English regionally spoken. Pupils should be taught about the variations in written English and how they differ from spoken language, and to distinguish varying degrees of formality, selecting appropriately for a task.

Focusing on communication in the classroom, the interactionist theory of teaching can be mentioned here. Learning a language in the classroom is essentially through interaction and interpersonal activity where the teacher can make sense of and respond to the behaviour of their students. Lessons can still involve using a certain grammar point, but this can be learnt subconsciously. A lot of language acquisition takes place through conversational interaction the students have. The students can work together to achieve a context and meaning to the lesson with the teacher as the facilitator. This communicative approach to learning has interaction as an important factor which supports language learning. The learning strategies for the students are where they use their teacher and their peers to further their language acquisition. This interaction can be vastly beneficial to the students’ natural acquisition. This means that the students can take control of their learning. The teacher can help [1]learners to use communication strategies as a way to negotiate meaning. This will not only help their comprehension but also help them learn new words. The students, then, have an opportunity to talk in their second language. Therefore, this highlights a teacher’s teaching methodology which should provide more chances for students to interact with each other as well as with the teacher. The teacher also has to recognize that while giving the students more freedom, the communicational input is beneficial at a right level that empowers the enthusiasm to work and mix in a group.

To conclude, I would select a descriptive teaching method as it allows the students to communicate in situations that show how they are aware of how to act. This gives the teacher the chance to see the way they are working and learning. It makes the language available to be understood and shown out in the open. This gives the students more opportunity to see the language at work instead of just written on paper.

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[1] Yule and Tarone, 1991. Yule and Tarone allied with the interactionist theory.