Helping Students Understand Second Language Acquisition

As a teacher, I’m committed to teaching language in the way that I think is the most effective. Based on my teaching experience and the research I’ve read on second language acquisition, I would say that focusing on providing students with comprehensible input is the best way that I can help my students.

The problem, however, is that students don’t always agree. Students often come to class with their own ideas about how languages are learned. Some students think they need to repeat words over and over again so they can perfect their pronunciation or “get the words in their heads.” Some students think they need to do lots of grammar practice so they can learn to speak correctly. Some students think they need to speak a lot in order to improve their speaking abilities. Some students ask to have every one of their errors corrected.

These difficulties arise in a lot of language classrooms, but I think they are a particularly big challenge for those of us who teach adults. Adults often have very set ideas about how language learning works or how they believe that they themselves learn best. Adults often like to have control over their learning. They like to learn the rules. They like to study and memorize. They like to have immediate, tangible measurements of their progress, such as, “I learned the past tense today. Now I know the past tense.”

While a lot of children would be perfectly happy in a language class where they just listen to silly stories and sing fun songs, many adults would start panicking in a class like this because they are not learning the rules, they’re not memorizing, and they’re not “practicing.” They don’t feel like they’re working hard, which makes them think they’re not really learning anything.

When students with these kinds of ideas about language learning show up in a class with a focus on comprehensible input and an avoidance of explicit grammar instruction and drilling, it can create major problems. Although most of my students seem to enjoy my classes and like my teaching style, I occasionally have some students who have a lot of trouble understanding why I teach the way I do.

In order to prevent major problems in class, I think it’s really important to be upfront with our students about why we teach the way we do. First and foremost, giving these explanations can prevent a lot of “battles” or misunderstandings between teacher and student. Secondly, I think it’s part of our job as teachers to equip our students for language acquisition outside the classroom. A lot of students like to practice the language outside of class time, so I think it’s important for us to help them know how they can best use their time. And even after our students leave our class at the end of the semester, we want them to know how they can continue progressing most efficiently.

Additionally, I think the stakes are higher with adults than with children. Children who are learning a language in school are required to attend class, so even if they dislike the way the teacher teaches, they’ll continue going to class every day. In teaching adults, we don’t have that luxury. If our students don’t feel like they’re learning, they can just drop out of class and never return. As far as I know, I’ve never had any students who dropped out of my class for this reason. Usually, when I have students drop out, they tell me why they are leaving class—their work schedule changed, they are having a baby, etc.—but there are occasionally students who just disappear without a word. And sometimes I wonder whether it was because they felt like they weren’t getting what they needed in class.

For all these reasons, I try to clearly explain to my students why I teach the way I do. Admittedly, this is a lot easier if you speak your students’ L1, which I do not. However, I still try to do my best to explain why I teach the way I do.

With lower-level ESL students, I try to use basic language to communicate to them about the process of language acquisition. For example, I often say, “Listening and reading in English are really important! It’s a good idea to do lots of listening and reading!” Also, on the first day with a new class, I give them a handout with a short explanation of my teaching methods, both in English and translated into their L1s. (I found colleagues who kindly translated the explanation for me!)

With higher-level students, it’s a little easier since I can use English to give a more thorough explanation and can answer their questions or discuss their concerns. Recently, I created this handout that I gave to my students and discussed with them during class. It focuses specifically on the importance of Free Voluntary Reading, and it gives a short summary of two research studies.

I also think it’s important to continuously talk to students about why I teach the way I do, not just at the start of the semester with a new class. I try to find regular opportunities here and there to talk to my students about how language acquisition works. This article from IJFLT written by Diane Neubauer, a high school Chinese teacher, explains how she uses quotations about SLA to start discussions with her students once a week during class.

Even with all of these efforts, there will still be students who doubt that they can acquire a language without memorizing vocabulary or practicing grammar rules. But I try to be patient. I continue doing my job in the best way I know how, while encouraging them and helping them to see that they are making progress, even if they’re not memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules.

Sometimes, I do make little compromises. For example, I have a student in my Level 4 class right now who is very focused on grammar. She says she is very confused by the present perfect and past perfect verb tenses, so she needs to study them. Although I’ve told her that the best way to acquire them is to listen and read so that she becomes familiar with the verb tenses and gets a feel for what sounds right, she still insists that she needs to study it. So I found a couple of grammar worksheets on the present perfect and past perfect, and I gave them to her to complete on her own time. I also gave her the answer keys so she could check her answers.

I think that little compromises like these can make our class time and our relationship with our students a little smoother. Giving students a little of what they want—even if we know it’s not actually going to help them much in the long run—helps them to feel better, which can make them more successful learners in our classes. I would rather give a few students some grammar worksheets than have them drop out of my class because they feel like they’re not learning anything.

Of course, I’m not going to take the time to print off grammar worksheets for all of my students; I’ve only done so with a couple of students who had a huge concern about learning grammar. And I’m not going to completely change the way I teach because of my students’ misconceptions about language acquisition. It wouldn’t make sense for me to intentionally become a less effective teacher just so I could please a few students. But I’ve found that making a few concessions here and there can go a long way in making my students feel more comfortable and successful in my class.

Admittedly, this is a tricky area. On the one hand, I am the expert in the room. I’m the one with teaching experience and a degree in language teaching, so it makes sense for me to decide how to run the class. However, I also don’t want to run my classroom like a dictatorship. I want my students to know that I listen to their concerns and that they can give me input and feedback about the class.

It’s a balancing act, but I think it’s an important one to try to navigate. Feel free to comment below if you have other ideas on how to help students understand the process of second language acquisition!


One thought on “Helping Students Understand Second Language Acquisition

  1. Nice post, Allison!

    *Señora Sara Broussard* *St. Martin’s Episcopal School* *Lower School Spanish* * *

    On Sat, May 27, 2017 at 2:05 PM, A Comprehension-Based Approach to Teaching Adult ESL wrote:

    > Allison Lewis posted: “As a teacher, I’m committed to teaching language in > the way that I think is the most effective. Based on my teaching experience > and the research I’ve read on second language acquisition, I would say that > focusing on providing students with comprehensible ” >


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