What is the most effective approach to foreign language instruction? – Part 1

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Introduction – Of metaphors teachers live by and pedagogy ‘evangelists’

Every single one of us lives by metaphors, behavioural templates which we acquire through our interaction with the environment we grow up and live in. The language learning metaphors that are at the heart of our teaching come to a large extent from our experiences as language learners. These images of learning are so strongly embedded in our cognition that according to researchers it takes years of training and teaching practice to replace them with new templates; in certain cases, they are even impervious to  ‘conditioning’, despite the demands of teacher trainers, course administrators or students – I have observed this phenomenon first-hand time and again in most of the schools I have worked at.

Our beliefs about L2 learning play an enormous role in determining what teachers we will become and our response to any new methodology that we are asked to adopt. Some individuals will reject new instructional approaches in the belief that if they are such good linguists and their teachers’ approach worked so well for them, why should it not work for their own students? Some others – like I did, for instance, during and after my PGCE – will integrate elements of their existing belief system with the new methodology (-ies) to create a sort of personalized ‘hybrid’ – a ‘syncretistic’ approach. Others, instead – what I call the ‘radical converts’ – will espouse the new methodology with some kind of fanaticism often becoming zealous evangelists of their new pedagogic ‘dogmata’

It is the third attitude that one must be wary of: the blind allegiance to any approach that claims to have found a universal pedagogical fit for every learner. Any such claim will be unfounded because every learner brings to bear on the learning process a range of genetic and acquired individual variables that play an important role in language aptitude as well as in the cognitive/emotional response to teachers and their methodology. Whilst some guiding principles may be ‘universal’ in that they refer to general mechanisms that regulate human cognition across age, race, gender, G.I. factor and language aptitude, their implementation will ALWAYS be conditioned by contextual variables.

Consequently, I am not going to play the ‘know-all L2-pedagogue’, here, and tell teachers what the best approach is. After all, if your students are happy, motivated and learning lots, you have found the best approach already. You may want to enhance and vary your repertoire of teaching strategies, but after all, if the vast majority of your students are getting where you want them to be in the time and with the resources that you have been allocated by your course administrators, you do not need anyone to tell you how to teach; unless someone throws the spanner in the works, that is, and tells you that you must ‘integrate’ new technology, life-long learning skills, etc. into your healthy and balanced teaching echo-system…

Psychology, however, does give us some clear indication of how humans acquire cognitive skills. So, if one believes, as it is logical to presume, that language acquisition involves the same processes and mechanisms involved in the acquisition of any other cognitive ability, it is possible to identify some core pedagogical principles as crucial to any form of explicit foreign language instruction. Moreover, there is some sound research empirical evidence out there that should inform our teaching; to claim that it is conclusive and irrefutable would be preposterous, but to ignore it because it is not would be irresponsible. After all, what teachers must do with research evidence is to make an informed choice and ask themselves the questions: do these findings resonate with me and my past experiences? Is it worth trying this out? And, after trying it out: did it work? And if it didn’t, you can modify it or reject it altogether and look elsewhere.

Thirteen pedagogic principles rooted Cognitive psychology

The following are the pedagogical principles rooted in Cognitive psychology theory and research that worked for me. I am no evangelist, thus I am not positing them as the Gospel’s truths: these are merely some of the beliefs I formed in more than 2 decades of primary, secondary and tertiary MFL teaching, researching and, most importantly, reflecting on my own practice and listening to my students.

I am not concerning myself explicitly with the most important issue– motivation. It goes without saying that no methodology will ever be effective unless the teacher brings about a high level of his/her learners’ cognitive and emotional arousal and develops their self-efficacy.

Finally, let me reiterate that the principles below are based on the epistemological assumption that language skills are acquired in the same way as any other cognitive human skill.

  1. Practice makes perfect – Every language skill and item, in order to be acquired, is subject to the ‘Power Law of Practice’ (Anderson, 2000). Hence Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing, Translation/Interpreting, Grammar and any other skills must all be practised extensively. This entails that any instructional approach (e.g. Grammar Translation and PBL) which does not emphasize all four skills in a balanced manner is defective. Instruction can be successful only through extensive practice and recycling of the kind envisaged in the next two points.
  1. Recycling must start from day one – forgetting starts occurring immediately after a given item has passed into Long-term Memory (Anderson and Jordan,1998). As the diagram below clearly shows, after 19 minutes one loses 40 % of what was recalled at time 0; after 9 hours, 56 % and after 6 days, 75 %. Recycling is imperative and must be of the spaced, distributed kind (a bit every so often) not of the massed kind (a lot of it once a week). Moreover, recycling must start on the same day something has been learnt. Instruction must model independent vocabulary learning habits which focus on autonomous recycling; it must also be mindful of human forgetting rate and provide for consolidation accordingly.


  1. Effective language learning = high levels of cognitive control – A language item can be said to be acquired only when it can be performed accurately and efficiently (with little hesitation) under real time conditions in unmonitored execution (e.g. spontaneous conversation). This means that acquisition occurs along a conscious to automatic continuum; it starts from a declarative stage where the application of the knowledge about a specific language item is applied slowly under the brain’s conscious control and it ends when the execution of that item is fully automatic and bypasses working memory (Johnson, 1996). Instruction must involve extensive practice which starts with highly structured tasks (i.e. gap-fill or audiolingual drills) which become increasingly less structured with time and aim at developing cognitive control (the ability to perform effectively in real operating conditions).
  1. Production should always come after extensive receptive processing – Humans learn languages by imitating others’ linguistic input. Instruction should engage learners in masses of receptive practice before engaging them in production. Thus, ideally, extensive listening/reading practice (in the way of comprehensible input) should always precede speaking/writing practice. This rules out reading or listening comprehension tasks as valuable receptive practice, as these are tests, not effective sources of modelling; reading/listening for personal enjoyment or enrichment would be more conducive to learning in this regard.
  1. Cognitive overload should be prevented and controlled for – cognitive overload occurs when learners are engaged in tasks that pose challenging demands on their working memory. Teachers ought to prepare their students for a given task by facilitating their cognitive access to each level of challenge posed by that task. Thus, before reading a challenging text, the learners should be taught the key vocabulary and grammar points it contains and effective strategies to tackle it. Moreover, the text could be adapted to incorporate more contextual clues that may facilitate inference of unfamiliar lexis.
  1. Focus on micro-skills as much as you do on the macro- ones – To execute any task in the L2 (e.g. an unplanned role-play) effectively, the brain must acquire effective cognitive control over both the higher meta-components (e.g. generating meaning) and the lower order skills involved (e.g. pronunciation and intonation). By automatizing lower order language skills, the brain frees up space in learner Working Memory thereby facilitating processing efficiency and cognitive control and, consequently, performance – this is like learning to drive a car whereby a driver automatizes the basic skills such as changing gear or accelerating so that s/he can focus on the road. Instruction must identify and systematically address every set of macro- and micro-skills that typical language tasks involve. Following on from (2) such micro-skills must be practised extensively, too.
  1. Learning is enhanced by depth of processing, distinctiveness of input and personal investment – Learning of any language item does not simply involve practice, but also depth of processing. Instruction must engage learners in semantic analysis and association in order to strengthen the memory trace and to increase the range of context-dependent cues at encoding which will enhance the recall of any target item. The distinctiveness of instructional input (how outstanding and memorable it is) is also an important learning enhancing factor. Personal investment, how much the learning taps into an individual’s emotions and personal background increases retention, too. Hence, in choosing topics and learning materials learner opinions and tastes should always be taken into account (e.g. personalized reading-for-enjoyment activities).
  1. Grammar taught explicitly can be acquired – On condition that it is practised extensively, in context, and through masses of communicative practice which starts from controlled tasks and progresses through increasingly challenging unstructured ones. The process is a lengthy one so it may require training students to work on it independently, too. Implications: recycling is imperative and must occur mostly through the cognitive-control enhancement dimension, i.e. less gap-fills and written translation and more oral semi-structured and unstructured tasks. To enhance grammar acquisition the exceptions to the rule governing an ‘X’ structure should be taught before the dominant rule, e.g. irregular before irregular forms (see my article ‘Irregular before regular…’ for the psycholinguistic rationale for this approach).
  1. Corrective feedback is important, especially at the early stages of instruction – However, in order to be effective it must be processed by the brain long and deeply enough for it to be rehearsed in Working Memory and stored permanently in Long-term memory. Hence, any feedback practice on an erroneous executed ‘X’ item must :
  • Be distinctive;
  • Engage learners in deep processing;
  • Recycle the corrective feedback;
  • Be carried out through various means in order to provide more contextual cues for its recall;
  • Not limit itself to treating the symptom (i.e. the error) but also and more importantly the root cause (whether lack of knowledge, processing inefficiency, etc.)
  • Bring about learner intentionality to eradicate the error (i.e. motivate them to address the error in the future in a sustained effort to eliminate it).

(Conti, 2004)

  1. Learning strategies can be taught – On condition that a persuasive rationale for their instruction is provided; that they are modelled and scaffolded effectively and are practised very extensively through a variety of contexts (Cohen, 1998; Macaro, 2007)
  1. Metacognition should be modelled regularly – enhancing learner metacognition is imperative as a learner who knows how to learn and perform best is a learner who is bound to be more successful. Research shows clearly that highly metacognizant individuals are more successful at L2 learning (Macaro, 2007). Ideally, teaching should regularly scaffold holistic and task specific metacognition by prompting students to monitor and evaluate every level of their language learning and performance. The same approach concisely outlined in point 9 applies here.
  1. Individual variables must be assessed at the beginning of instruction – Learner individual factors may inhibit or facilitate learning. Ideally, at the beginning of instruction it may be helpful (but not always viable, I know…) to obtain as much information as to the following students’ characteristics
  • Previous history as language learners;
  • Personality traits;
  • Learning strategies;
  • Learning preferences (NOT learning styles – but rather how one enjoys learning)
  • Language proficiency across all skills;
  • Language aptitude;
  • Personal interests;
  • Processing efficiency (e.g. how well learners process language);

    This is very time consuming and does require quite a lot of resources and expertise.

  1. Sources of divided attention must be controlled for – This is the most obvious learning principle (Eysenk, 1988); that is why I placed it last. In a lot of UK state school classrooms to expect every student to be focused 100 % of the time is unrealistic. However, in settings where behavior management is not an issue, teachers should endeavour to minimize any distraction stemming from any sources which are directly under their control. One of them is the excessive manipulation of digital media (e.g. app smashing) which hijacks learners’ finite attentional resources away from language processing. Digital media can be effective target language learning enhancers, but must be used judiciously to expand not shrink learning.

In conclusion, as already stated above, the above list is by no means exhaustive. It only includes some of the many pedagogic principles which, in my opinion, ought to underlie any instructional approach regardless of the educationl setting and espoused theory. Unfortunately, something important is missing: how should one implement the above principles in curriculum design, lesson planning and across all four macro-skills? Some of the answers can be found in the other articles on this blog. More answers will be provided in the sequel to this article in the very near future, in which I will concern myself with how those principle should inform pedagogy vis-à vis the four macro-skills, grammar, translation and learning strategy instruction.