The Key to Remember New Vocabulary When You Learn a Second Language

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By Julio Foppoli

When dealing with authentic materials, any single piece of material will display several patterns and structures that the student may not know at that time. As teachers, we may feel at a loss so as what to teach or not to teach. Spiral teaching is the solution we need!

For those of us working exclusively with authentic materials or even for those teachers who use them to complement their classes, spiral second language teaching plays a key role in their students’ learning process.

What is spiral teaching?

As you may very well know, when dealing with authentic materials, any single piece of material will display several patterns and structures that the student may not know at that time. However, as teachers we need to make choices so as what to systematize and teach at any given moment and what not to. In other words, although there may be lots of items that the student will need to learn, it is impossible to study each and every one during the course of just one lesson, or else you will have to present the student with dozens of new rules, patterns and structures that may literally overwhelm and cause him or her a great deal of frustration.

How could we go about this?

Spiral teaching provides the answer. This is a name I made up to describe a very effective approach I have been using to tackle these types of materials. As I mentioned in previous articles, “meaning” is the key. Forget grammar and patterns when you introduce a new topic. Have your students focus on understanding meaning, starting from the gist and once they have a pretty good idea of the general meaning, go deeper into more specific comprehension and once this has been achieved, focus on detailed comprehension.

After contextual meaning is absolutely clear for the student, you can focus on detailed vocabulary and grammar. During your lesson, you should always focus on one main item at a time. If the need arises, you may just mention or briefly explain any other pattern that may be necessary to understand the main point. However, do NOT go deeper into this, just mention it and explain that you will get back to this later. Put in a different way, a lesson should have a main focus and maybe several patterns that are just mentioned but not dealt with in detail.

What is the use of this?

That is a very good question. After all, you may ask, the student may not be able to produce those patterns that were introduced incidentally. And that is absolutely true! Nevertheless, you should think of those patterns as little seeds that you are planting until the time comes for you to systematize them more formally, one at a time of course.

That is to say, in one class you may mention it in an informal way, the very same structure may appear two classes later and you may mention it incidentally as well, and you can go on like this until the time comes for you to formally present it. When this moment finally comes, you will notice that it will be much easier both for you to present it, and much simpler for the student to understand it. After all, it will not be the first time s/he’s been exposed to this structure. There have been prior contacts with this pattern, so the student may have a pretty good idea of its uses IN CONTEXT. We cannot underestimate this important element. The student has been presented with the structure in context. This is by far much more valuable and productive than just coming to class and saying: “today we are going to learn this pattern.” Unlike in this latter example, the student has already needed to guess its meaning and uses, has seen it working in real life, has been told about it, and now, it is the time when s/he will study it formally.

Of course, while we present this specific item in a systematic way, we may also be introducing other new structures that the students may come across incidentally. Again, we will focus on our main target and we will just mention the other structures that may arise, limiting our explanations as much as possible, just to enable the student to grasp its meaning in context. By doing this, we will be planting new seeds that in no time will germinate.

The main advantage of authentic materials is that in any single article, report, segment of a video, etc. you will find most _ if not all_ the structures of the language laid out in front of you. By working systematically with these materials, you can always “plant seeds” and equally important, you can use them to review and refer back to what you have already seen and presented formally.

This is absolutely essential with authentic materials, not only do you need to plant little seeds but when the time comes and they blossom you have to water them on a regular basis. This is spiral teaching at work. Not only should you mention items casually and teach them at a later time, but you should also need to provide students with ample opportunities to interact and use them naturally and refer back to them when they fail to use them appropriately. Spiral teaching requires a LOT of recycling. This results in language acquisition. What they see formally in class today, has been already mentioned and will also be mentioned in the future time and again, but NOT as part of a grammar drilling or something similar but actually in the course of real communication.

Will students get it right at once? No way. They may make lots of mistakes, even after you have taught the item formally. Trial and error is VERY important. That is part of the first-language acquisition process and it should not be disregarded in second-language acquisition. It is through trial and error that students become really aware of the workings of the language, of what works and what doesn’t. And by making mistakes they can rule out what is not correct. For example, a learner of English may say “goed” instead of “went” to refer to the past of the verb “to go.”

This may drive a teacher crazy but only if the teacher fails to recognize that this student is making awesome progress, in spite of the obvious error. The student clearly shows that his/her internal grammar, a subconscious process, has internalized that in order to form the past in most verbs you ad “-ed” to the infinitive form (i.e want – wanted, need — needed) However, the verb “go” does NOT fit into this pattern.

After several exposures of this kind, the very same student will start to use the new form, simply because it will have been internalized through exposure and interaction IN CONTEXT. It goes without saying that without someone to interact with you cannot tell what is right or wrong and consequently, your progress will be limited to just repeating a few words and phrases. That is why so many self-study courses on CD fail time and again, but that is another story that we may tackle in a future article.

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