Category Archives: Tools for Teachers

The Impact of Placement Practices on English Language Learners

The Impact of Placement Practices on English Language Learners

Research Study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, 2006

Marlene Ryll, M.A.,M.B.A.

Freeman and Freeman (2002) identified three distinct subgroups of ELLs: newly arrived with adequate formal schooling, newly arrived with limited formal schooling, and long term English learners.  These subgroups require significantly differing approaches in instruction and vary extremely in terms of prior education, literacy, and English oral language proficiency.  But what happens when these students are placed together in one classroom with one teacher attempting to use “differentiated instruction” to maximize each student’s learning rate and academic success?  We contend that this effort is analogous to placing 20 students into one classroom who all need a credit in science, except that some need a credit in astronomy, others in biology, yet others in earth science.  Meanwhile, the teacher assigned to the class is certified in elementary science education and provided with state science standards for physics and requested to provide differentiated instruction such that all students will maximize their learning in the areas in which they need help while making progress toward achieving high scores in the standardized state science test in physics.


We decided to take a look at these three groups in terms of their characteristics and instructional needs, and identify some of the causes for the failure of our secondary schools to provide the kind of help that allows them to be successful academically and economically.  Our premise was simply that differentiated instruction cannot take place without differentiate placement when student characteristics are too varied to allow for successful implementation of such instructional strategies.


Table 1 summarizes some of the characteristics of these distinct ELL subgroups as identified by Fresno Unified School District, Office of Multilingual/Multicultural Education and Lenski, Ehlers-Zavala, Daniel and Sun-Irminger (2006). For discussion in this work, these three groups are classified as: Highly Literate New Immigrants (HLNI), Under Schooled New Immigrants (USNI), and Long Term Literacy English Proficient (LTLEP).




The 3 R’s of Second Language Acquisition

Critical Commonalities of SLA


The Impetus for my research project came directly from my own ignorance.  Teaching is both an art and a science, and I want to be good at it.  I may be naturally good (or well trained) at the “art” of teaching, but without understanding how people learn or what factors make for maximum learning in minimal time, none of us can expect to “know” that our approach to teaching is either the most efficient or the most effective.  On the other hand, without understanding how to implement whatever knowledge I have within the classroom setting, I can’t “make use” of that knowledge in a way that has an impact on my teaching practices.

So, with all the readings and “theory” of Second Language Learning, it both amused and irritated me to find so much research being done in what I saw as a “haphazard” manner.  What I saw were a bunch of Republicans and Democrats fighting each other to promote the ideas of their “candidate” – Krashen, Long, Pica, Ellis, Swain, Wode – Input, Output, Reading, Grammar, Social Discourse, foreigner-talk, interlanguage, negotiated meanings, motivation, immersion, natural order, and on and on.  I posed two basic questions for myself throughout my travels into this field of study.  The first was this:  Regardless of what “theory” this author is promoting, or what variables are being tested in a particular study, are there some basic “commonalities” I can find throughout ALL the research available?  In other words, are there some common threads that appear in every study?  And second: If there are, and if I can pinpoint and prove them, how can these “basics” be phrased in such a way as to be “practical” for a teacher?  This second requirement means that while I found some truths to be true and meaningful, such as the relevance of socioeconomic background, previous language learning, motivation, personality type, etc…, I couldn’t waste my time focusing on these.  And I couldn’t do so because these are not factors that we, as teachers, have any control over.  These types of concepts serve to help us “understand” more, but not to teach better.  In the end, we are all about “teaching”, and finding a “truth” is only as useful as it is “applicable” within the framework of a teacher’s ability to “make use” of it.

I read a lot.  I thought a lot.  And I found 3 incredibly meaningful, basic concepts that run rampant throughout all the literature.  I named them “reaction”, “repetition”, and “range”, with range being the most important of the three.  We can’t control someone’s motivation in general, but as teachers and “public performers”, we have tremendous capacity to learn how to “get their attention” in a classroom.  This attention is a prerequisite for any further teaching or learning process.  If they aren’t listening, and we don’t have their “interest”, we can’t continue to impact on their learning process.  No matter what a study purported to do or investigate, every one implicitly or explicitly included the idea that students paid “attention” to what was going on.  Without “attention” we have nothing.  With attention, we have a beginning.  I preferred to use the term “reaction” (although perhaps “reception” would work equally well) because it implies that something is being done with the input given.  In SLA, that something produces a “reaction” within the learner.  Although not all reactions help the learning process in the long run (for example, you can make a student “angry” and cause early termination of the desire to learn from you), the student must “respond, react to, or receive” the communication being offered.

The second important concept is “repetition”.  This repetition may take a variety of forms.  It may be the result of “forced output,” it may be the effect of reading, of repeating new vocabulary, of hearing words again and again.  But repetition is a critical key to learning, and without it, learning never moves from short term memory (where reaction may occur) into long term storage for retrieval later on.  Again, regardless of the study or theory I read about, there was a “repetition” type component, which facilitated the learning (or acquisition) process.  As with attention, repetition does not always result in learning.  There is both a minimum and a maximum level.  At the minimum, things need to be repeated in some form at least 7 times.  But beyond a maximum (which may vary for learners), there is “boredom” or excess, which then may contribute to a latent or subtle “turning off” process within the learner.  Despite these parameters, however, repetition is a primary requirement without which language acquisition simply cannot happen.

The third and most important concept is “range”.  Ellis explicitly addresses this term (and it is “his” term, not mine) in his latest work.  Range is best explained by another expression, called “complexity-consciousness”.  This phrase, which is attributed to Pierre Teilharrd de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, refers to an evolutionary process.  In this process, he noted that life developed along lines of increasing complexity and a parallel increase in consciousness.  Simply put, the amoeba is simpler in terms of molecular structure, and has little, if any consciousness.  As we move up the line of life, through plants, to animals, and humans, we see increasing levels of molecular complexity and accompanying higher levels of consciousness.  In life as we know it on earth, man has the most densely packed and complex web of molecular structures, as well as the highest form of consciousness.  Thus we have the highest levels of complexity-consciousness.  Teilhard posed that the next level of evolution would occur within the intellectual and spiritual realms, where man’s consciousness continues to evolve.  But that’s a subject for another day.  His theory’s applicability within the realm of SLA is what we want to look at.

If in fact, this model of complexity consciousness is valid and true, and if it applies to life’s processes, then it must apply at every level within life.  Then we can rephrase this biological model in terms of learning.  Learning occurs in leaps (as does evolution) within the mind that lead to understanding and permanent change (knowing – increased consciousness), when something within the mind changes as a result of attaining a required level of complexity, or density of structure.  This density of structure or complexity is composed of the maximizing of all inputs that are related, and which contain the same “new” meaning.  Let’s get practical.  Range, then (or complexity) is that which allows the learner to maximize their “view” of a new item of learning, or, it is the constant increase in “contextual” elements within the learning process.  Range is provided when a student sees the same word in many different sentences, all of which add to the “perception” and understanding of what that word really means.  This I call the “micro” level of range.  Range is also the variety of methods and forms we use in conveying a piece of knowledge.  It is increased when we not only express new words, but have students express them, have students read them, have students recognize them, have students write them.  This is what I call the “macro” level of using range to increase understanding and learning.  It is not to be confused with another, similar concept.  It is not re-explaining in 5 thousand ways what a particular word might mean when a student doesn’t seem to understand it.  The more we try to explain, the more new words we may introduce, the more confused the student may become.  Rather, it is providing different “modes” or views of the same thing through variation in methods used to target the same item of knowledge.

Of the three, range (or complexity) is the most effective and most critical.  Effective because it already incorporates reaction and repetition components.  The more varied the stimulus we provide in approaching the same item, the more likely one or more will cause a “reaction” within the learner.  And of course, the varied stimulus all point to, or contain the new item, which means “repetition” is occurring.  Unlike reaction and repetition, there aren’t any downsides to using range to maximize the potential for increased “consciousness” or learning/permanent change.  In all research and studies, range is the component that most affected positive learning outcomes.  It also gives us a new vantage point for our understanding of theories of SLA; one which doesn’t lead us into different, conflicting camps.  The concept of range allows us all to acknowledge the value of every major researcher’s concepts and initiatives, since all of them provide us with a greater “variety” of methods to use for maximizing learning in our students.

Reaction, repetition, and range; and the greatest of these is “range”.  Without them, we have nothing; with them, we have, as teachers, all the tools required to maximize our effectiveness in providing students with what they need to learn.


The 3 R’s of SLA


There are over 40 theories of Second Language Acquisition (Larson-Freeman & Long, 227) and thousands of studies assessing the value of various teaching methods.  The motivations of authors may vary, but the end purpose of all SLA research studies is to find ways to maximize teacher effectiveness and student learning.  Nativist theories, most closely connected to Chomsky and Krashen, focus on innate learner variables.  Environmentalist theories, associated with Skinner and Schumann, focus on the impact of experience.  Interactionist theories, represented by a wide diversity of authors, have fathered “discourse analysis” and attempt to balance the “nature-nurture” scale.  Within each of these traditions lies some aspect of truth related to SLA, and each has spawned hundreds of studies to evaluate the forces which impact on the development of language fluency.

Notwithstanding much heated debate, some concepts have become “common knowledge” within the SLA teaching community.  These generally accepted ideas have catapulted SLA into a major new discipline and provide the groundwork for current approaches to curriculum development and implementation.  Learners who tend to succeed are motivated (Gardner and Lambert, 1959) and affective variables have “visible effects on learning results” (Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982, 54).  Input is required and must be “comprehensible” (Long, 1981; Krashen, 1985).  Interaction is more effective in providing comprehensible input than non-interactive input (Pica, 1987). Foreigner talk, which appears similar to motherese, “facilitates comprehension of meaning by learners” (Galloway, 226; Hatch, 1978; Ellis, Tanaka, & Yamazaki, 1994).  Developmental stages must be taken into account when teaching a second language (Clahsen, Meisel, and Pienemann, 1983).  There is a similarity between first and second language acquisition processes (Wode, 1981).  Grammar instruction promotes writing effectiveness (Scott, 1989) and also “helps” learners acquire language (Terrell, 1989).  There is a need for “negotiation of meaning” even among early learners (Freed, 1991, 35) and a “natural order” of acquisition (Gass & Selinker, 1994; Dulay & Burt, 1974), which cannot be significantly altered by instruction (Pienemann in Pfaff, 1987, 161).  Forced oral practice of the target language results in “comprehensible output”, which also aids in the development of language fluency (Swain in Gass and Madden, 1985, 252).  Reading facilitates language acquisition and supports the teaching process (Elley, 1991).  More intense and varied exposure supports rapid language acquisition (Collins, Halter, Lightbrown, & Spada, 1999).   These are some of the most widely accepted and relatively well understood ideas that teachers already include in their challenging roles as guides to second language learning.

But common knowledge cannot always be readily translated into meaningful techniques for classroom teaching.  While motivation, socioeconomic background, and personality traits make a significant difference in the end results of language acquisition, teachers do not control these factors.  Although age and previous exposure to other languages impacts on the facility with which learners can absorb new language information, no teacher can make use of this knowledge in a meaningful way.  Teachers simply cannot alter history or change “aptitudes”, or provide for maximum exposure outside the classroom.  This does not make research in unalterable variables meaningless or imply that such research should be abandoned.  But teachers who practice their profession on a daily basis seek to know about those things that can be effectively turned into tools for improving their impact as teachers.  They need “practical” knowledge from research, knowledge that will help them in any environment and support all types of curriculum.  What the paper purports to do is focus on three variables, which have been shown to impact significantly on language acquisition.  These three factors: reaction, range, and repetition, are the primary ingredients of any successful learning process, and understanding exactly what they are, how they occur, and how to maximize their effect will significantly improve learner progress in any environment.

We have posited three terms, which we claim are factors that play a primary role in SLA, and which we, as teachers, can control within the classroom environment.  Further, we will claim that these factors play a principal role in ALL learning and form the foundation of human growth, which is an evolutionary process.  We are not here debating whether the earth was “created” or “evolved”, but rather looking at a well documented and accepted scientific fact involving the processes of change.  Teilhard de Chardin put this process this way:

“that if the universe, regarded sidereally, is in process of spatial expansion (from the infinitesimal to the immense), in the same way and still more clearly it presents itself to us, physico-chemically, as in process of organic involution upon itself (from the extremely simple to the extremely complex), —and, moreover, this particular involution ‘ of complexity ‘ is experimentally bound up with a correlative increase in interiorisation, that is to say in the psyche or consciousness.”” (Teilhard de Chardin, 1975)

Let’s simplify these words.  Life appears to progress, from the smallest (amoeba) to the highest (man) level or organization in a manner which systematically increases molecular complexity and is accompanied by an increase in consciousness.  Why is this important for SLA?  If in fact, this process is a “truth” and forms the foundation of life’s processes, then this truth permeates all levels of growth, including the individual’s ability to intellectually process information.  This theory is known as “complexity-consciousness”.  A rise in consciousness (learning) results from the growth of complexity (range) within the system in a punctuated manner.  “Punctuated” means that a new form (new understanding) emerges at certain intervals when “complexity” reaches a required “maximum” density.  The precise amount of complexity needed (for maximization) may not be known, but the process itself is known and predictable.  This is a fundamental law whereby all change and growth (learning) occurs.  It will become, for us, the central core of SLA and the most critical aspect which teachers control; the development of complexity, or “range” for learners.

Before we delve into a more detailed understanding of what “range” means for SLA and why it actually is the MOST critical factor in language acquisition, let’s discuss the other two important aspects of learning, “reaction” and “repetition”.  Reaction is another term for what we sometimes call attention or focus.  There has been much discussion about the processes of perception and cognition, and whether learning can occur without conscious attention to input.  We know that information must somehow be “processed” before it can become internalized and recalled by the learner for use or application.  Gass discusses “selective processing” which turns input into “intake” (Gass, 5).  “Literature in experimental psychology indicates that memory requires attention and awareness.” (McLaughlin, 1990).  There are well defined theories about how and why we pay attention or become conscious of input provided to us.  One of these is called “Adaptive Resonance Theory (ART)”, which both discusses the processes whereby information is selected for “intake” and how information moves from temporary awareness and storage into long term storage centers within the brain.  It is founded on systems theory applied to human beings.  According to ART, input is selected for attention based on previous notions and stored information.  “Somehow the sound that we expect to hear based upon our previous language experience influences what we do hear,…” (Grossberg, 1998).  ART supports Krashen’s concepts regarding “comprehensible input” and is in sync with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” theories.  Our drive for meaning initiates attention to input based on previously assimilated knowledge.  Debates on the definition of consciousness as intention, knowledge, or awareness, and how to understand levels of consciousness aside, we know that “intake is that part of the input that the learner notices” (Schmidt, 1988).  The reason “attention is paid to something” is often connected to motivation theories, and these “affective domains” are what influence discussions about what type of input serves the interests of learners best.  Social interaction, ethnic identity and relationships are factors impacting on what “input models” learners actively choose to attend to. (Beebe in Gass  & Madden, 411).  For our purposes, it suffices to understand that the process of learning requires a measure of attention, focus, noticing, or, as herein described, “reaction”.  Reaction is the term chosen because it most effectively focuses on the fact that “something must be done” with the information presented, that is to say, input must be “acted upon” or “responded to” by the system in some way for it to become fixed in memory and retrievable for later use.

Comprehensible Input becomes comprehended, or intake, based on the learner’s “reacting” in some manner to the stimulus given (information/words).  Ellis discusses this “reacting” in terms of increasing the “depth of processing” that occurs through intrapsychic work performed by the conscious attention of learners.  Providing interpersonal situations for interaction (although not necessarily “social” interaction) increases learner control of discourse, which promotes “interpersonal interaction” or “private speech”, which mediates the learning process. (Ellis, 239, 252, 255).  His conclusion is supportive of Krashen’s theories; the negotiation of meaning that serves learning best is not necessarily the result of “external” discourse negotiation, but the “inner” negotiation of meaning through the attention (reaction) given to input.  “Those who notice most, learn most, and it may be that those who notice most pay attention most” (Schmidt & Frota, 1986). To the degree that anything supports this attention/noticing/“reaction”, whether it is teaching metacognitive skills, giving learners greater control through social discourse, reading interesting materials, or teaching about language (grammar/syntax), it encourages and accelerates language acquisition. While teachers do not control learner motivation, aptitude, or socioeconomic background, they can control their choice of delivery style, curriculum content, classroom design, and interaction setup (activities) so as to elicit this “reaction” on the part of learners.

Repetition, which is the third critical component of SLA and learning in general, is founded on concepts which link the embedding of new information into the system through reinforcement.  This reinforcement allows temporary storage items to become more “fixed” so that they can become part of the automated network of knowledge, capable of being recalled without significant conscious effort on the part of the learner.  In management/leadership theory, there is a great deal of literature about creating new “habits” to maximize time use and efficiency.  A common concept used to ingrain new habits and patterns, is that of doing something seven times in order to “imprint” it in memory.  The minimum “repetitions” required to make something automatic is seven.  In Latin, there is a saying, “repetitio mater studiorum est”, which means “repetition is the mother of learning”.  Learning theories agree on the fact that repetition somehow enhances the underlying processes of learning.  Ellis, in reviewing a study about frequency related to SLA noted that “words that occurred seven or more times in the course books of Indian learners were known by most learners” (Ellis, 46)  Frequency, or repetition, increases the “meaningfulness” of information, increasing the potential of moving such information from Short Term Memory (STM) to Long Term Memory (LTM).  Long Term Memory requires “deeper processing” and results in permanent imprinting of knowledge for later retrieval, while STM is a relatively temporary storage space, where information “waits” to be acted upon.  If STM data is reinforced through repetition/practice, it moves into permanent storage in LTM.  If it is not reinforced, it becomes available for recall only temporarily, eventually being “forgotten”.

Krashen notes as well that while “creative language” can be lost when the left hemispehere is damaged, routines and patterns appear to remain intact, even when they are far beyond the level of the developing rule system in children, if these “unanalyzed” expressions have occurred with “high frequency” within the learner’s environment.  He implies that this high frequency occurrence results in their being available “in both the left and right brain hemispeheres” (Dulay, Burt & Krashen, 242).  Use of repetition by mothers of children has been positively correlated with L1 language development (Conti-Ramsden in Galloway & Richards, 186) while a facilitative feature in early SLA development is teacher self-repetition (Ellis in Gass & Madden, 82).  “Young children often repeat part or all of their partner’s preceding utterance in conversations” (James, 117).

Repetition can occur in any number of ways.  It occurs when learners “drill” or repeat phrases or vocabulary, when they write or read for reinforcement of information, when mothers “expand or recast their child’s utterances” (Loritz, 186), when native speakers repeat non-native speakers sentences, when clarification requests are made in discourse (Pica, 1994), or when “forced output” is used to promote language acquisition.  Repetition has been shown to be a component of all successful learning programs.  TPR, as promoted by Asher relies on repetition coupled with physical enactment to maximize retention.  Repetition in the form of “imitation, is postulated to be a universal discovery procedure for first and second language learning” (McLaughlin in Rosenberg, 235).  It is pivotal, regardless of the learner’s age.  While young children use repetition for learning in an automated or “intuitive” process, older children and adults use it equally, and often add an internal repetition system to their repertoire, as they utilize metacognitive skills to think about or analyze what they hear.  Giving learners control and encouraging modified output increases both the probability of “meaningful” interaction, and therefore, motivation; and provides opportunities for extensive repetition as well as for the likelihood of creating input that is more comprehensible to the learner (closer to their I+1 level), that is to say, within their zone of proximal development (Ellis & Xien in Ellis, 129).

Reaction (attention/focus) has been shown to be the first step in successful instruction, and repetition (practice/reinforcement) is required for embedding new information in the deeper structures of the mind, for “permanence” of learning.  In between these two, lies the crux of learning, which is range or “complexity”.  In evolution, complexity is the “density of molecular structure” required for a change of state to occur, or increased consciousness (learning).  In learning theory, we define range as the “variability of input containing that which is to be learned”.  This variability allows for “understanding” or comprehension of new material.  A simple analogy renders this definition comprehensible.  An elephant may look like a barn from behind, like a snake from up front, or like a hippopotamus from the side.  Increasing the number of directions (or angles) from which an observer can view an elephant, increases the likelihood of imparting to the observer the true sense of what an elephant is, or of helping the observer “understand” that the word elephant has all the dimensions we commonly associate with that word.

ART informs us that incoming signals are perceived in a “top-down” process, whereby what filters through our selective attention and storage systems is consistent with our previously stored expectations, or knowledge.  This “process of resonance binds together information about both meaning and phonetics” (Grossman, 10).  Neural networks develop rapidly in early life, and they do so based on the connections formed by the brain as new knowledge is processed and kept in LTM.  Subsequent learning seeks to “understand” by recalling what is known and linking new information to those segments that most closely correlate to the new data provided.  This biological process is the foundation for Vygotsky’s learning theories and the idea of “scaffolding”.  Private speech, inner speech, and social interaction all are based on the concept of scaffolding, in which the learner’s comprehension is aided either externally (via tutors, teachers, and native speakers use of foreigner talk), or internally (via metacognitive processes) by helping place new information within “reach” for the learner.  The greater the variability, or range provided, the more likely that the brain will find the connections required to make new information “meaningful”, or to “comprehend” it.  Although not adequately highlighted in SLA literature, the concept of range has been addressed by various authors.  Ellis, in reviewing research studies regarding modified input, quotes Mackey (1965) and concludes along with Carpay (1975) that range is the quantity of samples in which a new item is embedded, and that new words need to be introduced from the venue of at least four different contexts in order to be learned (Ellis, 98).  It is not whether learners have social interaction, classroom teaching, reading, or proficiency-oriented training that makes them successful in learning.  The relative success of each approach is directly correlated to the amount of variability or range that each provides the learner with.  Range, as used herein, is also alluded to as “redundancy” in SLA literature, and it has been shown to be critical in developing understanding

“In our data, it appears that what the professors are doing in their second language classes is precisely this – exploiting the potential of language and the supporting extralinguistic content to increase the redundancy of the signals through which they communicate their meaning” (Wesche & Ready in Gass & Madden, 112).

In other places, the focus is on “recasts” by teachers and “self-recasts” by learners, which provide greater “richness” by increasing complexity in language structure, and which have been shown to effectively accelerate learning (Richards in Galloway & Richards, 82).  TPR is so successful with beginning learners because it provides an alternate way  to maximize “range” for learners whose lack of basic vocabulary precludes the extensive use of verbal language, which is beyond the beginner’s “zone of proximity”, since their scaffolding is so bare yet in terms of previous knowledge on which to hang new information presented in the L2.  Instead of using “contextual referents”, TPR uses “concrete referents” (Dula, Burt & Krashen, 26) to assist the learner with creating meaning and comprehension.  Transitional constructions (Krashen) and interlanguage are the visible aspects of the “organizer’s” processing, or the ongoing effort that takes new information from the realm of “unknown” to “understood”.  Fossilization may result from the loss of reaction to input that is meant to create continued progress, or because excessive repetition of incorrect forms of the L2 have so strongly imprinted these forms as to preclude the inclusion of information meant to correct errors.  In either case, it is related to the lack of provision of adequate “range” during the learning process.  We will come back to why this is so later.

Humans are complex, adaptive systems and their language development reflects this.  New structures (species or learning) occur when a threshold of complexity is reached, which develops through the weaving of connections between the old and the new, in an efficient search for patterns and systems useful for adaptive/functional purposes.  The species evolved in this manner, language in general evolved in this manner, specific languages evolved in this manner, and individual SLA evolves in the same manner.  The goal of language is communication, and to that end, the brain seeks to understand and connect new language information to previous linguistic and cognitive structures of meaning.  Learning, similar to evolution, exhibits sudden, pervasive changes.  When an “upper boundary” of complexity is reached, a higher level of organization emerges.  In this manner, development and language learning cooperate with one another.  SLA progresses via this constant reorganization, whereby a new “level” of organization results in understanding, or “a reorganizational jump whose characteristic is that the emergent system is somehow greater than the sum of the parts that constituted it” (Barber & Peters in Hawkins & Gell-Mann, 347).

Krashen’s theory of “roughly tuned input or net” (Terrell & Krashen, 33) is founded on the concept of providing maximum range or complexity within the learner’s I+1 or “proximal zone of development”.  His emphasis on comprehensible input and inflexibility in assigning a greater role to any forms or methods that are not centered on “range” (output, the necessity of interaction, etc..) indicate his understanding of range as the “primary” requirement/necessity for SLA.    Of course, all other theories contain components that also enhance language acquisition, but they do so primarily by increasing range on a microcosmic or macrocosmic level.  As used here, the microcosmic level is that which provides information to the learner about the meaning of a word or form through its varied use in different sentences.  This type of variation supplies the learner with both an increase in frequency (repetition), and with more angles from which to gain meaning about new input (range).  In his latest work, Ellis agrees with Krashen  regarding the pre-eminence of input and the workings of the brain for SLA.

“I have argued above that the kind of interaction that is crucially important for acquisition is the intrapsychological activity that results from learners’ attempts to process input for comprehension and acquisition.  Such activity is not dependent on learners’ ability to interact socially, although, doubtlessly this is one way in which it can be stimulated” (Ellis, 242).

Ellis further notes that in terms of production or forced output, “there does not appear to be any obvious advantage for either the acquisition of vocabulary or grammar of actively participating in interaction” (Ellis, 245).  The macrocosmic level is that aspect of complexity or range, which increases the situational contexts in which the learner sees a particular word or form; such as reading, social interaction, forced output, classroom instruction of rules about language, teaching thinking strategies, etc..  “There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the frequency with which novel words appear in a text affects acquisition” (Ellis, 155).  Reading, again, provides the learner with both an increase in repetition of the targeted knowledge and an increase in range, or perspective (angle) from which to view the targeted knowledge.  Ellis notes near the end of his work, “range, in particular, emerged as an important factor; learners need the opportunity to experience a new item in a number of different contexts” (Ellis, 249).

We have seen that the three primary factors that accelerate learning or SLA are reaction, range, and repetition.  Of these three, range stands out as the most important.  The reason for this is simple and obvious.  First, reactions can be both positive and negative, and excessive attention to one particular can preclude openness of the system to further input while it “overfocuses” on one aspect of all that is being presented.  Although teachers can do many things to gain attention or to motivate students, there is no guarantee that simply focusing will result in learning or acquisition.  It may result in temporary focus and place new information only in the STM, which can eventually extinguish.  It may also result in inappropriate focusing, for example, a teacher who dresses as a clown in order to teach things about the circus also produces “static” or distractors for the learner, whose thoughts may wander to ideas that are not related to the particular task at hand.  Repetition suffers from similar problems when viewed as primary.  Studies have concluded that there is a minimum requirement, but there is also an upper boundary or maximum within which frequency must fit.  Too much repetition can exhaust the brain’s ability to pay attention, or to react, to a given input.  Further, excessive repetition can actually diminish the potential of learning, or become an irritant as boredom sets in.  It can be tricky business for a teacher to know the precise amount of rote repetition that is useful for acquisition, without risking loss of attention or harming the acquisition process.

Range, however, provides the learner with “variety” and thereby stimulates reaction, or maximizes the probability that the learner will react to the new information presented.  By incorporating varied tasks at the macrocosmic level, teachers can implement the concept of range to impact on all learners by presenting instruction in such a way as to make use of the “multiple intelligence” theory, which tells us that different learners function better with differing approaches.  Thus, reading, social interaction, participative activities, and overt grammar instruction, all maximize the probability that most learners can connect new information in a meaningful way to previous information and understand new ideas/concepts/words.

Further, range provides for maximum frequency/repetition, but because it does so within the context of “variation”, it minimizes the probability that learners will “burn out” from repetition.  In this respect, then, range encompasses both reaction and repetition variables, which are subcomponents of range or “complexity”.  Fossilization, which truncates full language acquisition is often the result of the lack of range.  When the learner’s environment lacks sufficient range; either because interaction is limited to the language provided by other non-native speakers or native speakers whose language use is neither correct grammatically nor rich in vocabulary, or because not enough varied resources are utilized in teaching (reading, production, hands-on activities), incorrect and limited SLA occurs.

Understanding the impact of range on learning not only provides a framework from which to evaluate theories of SLA, but links all theories together in a comprehensive whole, which diminishes the need to emphasize one over the other, except to the extent that those which allow the most range for learners become recognized for providing greater acceleration in SLA.  Each focus, however, is seen as valuable, and each contributes to eventual language acquisition.  More research needs to be done which identifies range as the primary critical factor in the underlying studies, which compare various theories of SLA.  In doing so, researchers will be able to connect SLA research to advances in learning theory, as well as make use of the discoveries of other fields of study, including physics, cybernetics, economics, sociology, and archeology.  Meanwhile, teachers need to understand the concept of range and recognize its importance in second language acquisition.  By doing so, they acquire the ability to significantly enhance their potential to successfully assist learners in acquiring language fluency.



Caruthers, P., & Boucher, J. (Eds.). (1998). Language and Thought: Interdisciplinary themes. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dulay, H., Burt, M., & Krashen, S. (1982). Language Two. New York: Oxford University Press.

Edwards, H. & Kirkpatrick, A. (1999). Metalinguistic Awareness in Children: A Developmental Progression.  Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 28:4, 313-329.

Ellis, R. (1984). Classroom Second Language Development: A study of classroom interaction and language acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Ellis, R. (1999). Learning a Second Language through Interaction. (Vol. 17). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: John Benjamins North America.

Freed, B. (Ed.). (1991). Foreign Language Acquisition Research and the Classroom. Massachusetts: D.C. Heath & Company.

Gallaway, C., & Richards, B. (Eds.). (1994). Input and Interaction in Language Acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gass, S., & Madden, C. (Eds.). (1985). Input in Second Language Acquisition: Series on Issues in Second Language Research. New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Gass, S. (1997). Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Grossberg, S. (1998). The Link Between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness. Technical Report CAS/CNS-TR-97-018, Boston University.

Hawkins, J., & Gell-Mann, M. (Eds.). (1992). The Evolution of Human Languages: Proceedings of the workshop on the evolution of human languages. (Vol. XI). Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

James, S. (1990). Normal Language Acquisition. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin System.

Krashen, S., Long, M., & Scarcella, R. (1979). Age, Rate and Eventual Attainment in Second Language Acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 13, No. 4, 573-581.

Krashen, S. & Terrell, T. (1983). The Natural Approach. California: The Alemany Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Long, M. (1997). An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc.

Long, M. (1983). Does Second Language Instruction Make A Difference? TESOL Quarterly, 17, No. 3, 359-381.

Loritz, D. (1999). How the Brain Evolved Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1990). “Conscious” versus “Unconscious” Learning. TESOL Quarterly, 24:4, 617-631.

Pfaff, C. (Ed.). (1982). First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers.

Pica, T. (1982). Adult Acquisition of English as a Second Language under Different Conditions of Exposure. Language Learning, 33:4, 465-495.

Pica, T. (1992). Research on Negotiation: What Does It Reveal About Second Language Learning Conditions, Processes, and Outcomes? Language Learning, 44:3, 493-527.

Rosenberg, S. (Ed.). (1982). Handbook of Applied Psycholinguistics: Major Thrusts of Research and Theory. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1975) The Essence of the Phenomenon of Man. (On-line) Extracts cited by Janice B. Paulsen from the final chapter of The Phenomenon of Man, 300-310,








Idioms and Sayings

A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush:

Having something that is certain is much better than taking a risk for more, because chances are you might lose everything.


A Blessing In Disguise:

Something good that isn’t recognized at first.


A Chip On Your Shoulder:

Being upset for something that happened in the past.


A Dime A Dozen:

Anything that is common and easy to get.


A Doubting Thomas:

A skeptic who needs physical or personal evidence in order to believe something.


A Drop in the Bucket:

A very small part of something big or whole.


A Fool And His Money Are Easily Parted:

It’s easy for a foolish person to lose his/her money.


A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand:

Everyone involved must unify and function together or it will not work out.


A Leopard Can’t Change His Spots:

You cannot change who you are.


A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned:

By not spending money, you are saving money (little by little).


A Picture Paints a Thousand Words:

A visual presentation is far more descriptive than words.


A Piece of Cake:

A task that can be accomplished very easily.


A Slap on the Wrist:

A very mild punishment.


A Taste Of Your Own Medicine:

When you are mistreated the same way you mistreat others.


A Toss-Up:

A result that is still unclear and can go either way.


Actions Speak Louder Than Words:

It’s better to actually do something than just talk about it.


Add Fuel To The Fire:

Whenever something is done to make a bad situation even worse than it is.


Against The Clock:

Rushed and short on time.


All Bark And No Bite:

When someone is threatening and/or aggressive but not willing to engage in a fight.


All Greek to me:

Meaningless and incomprehensible like someone who cannot read, speak, or understand any of the Greek language would be.


All In The Same Boat:

When everyone is facing the same challenges.


An Arm And A Leg:

Very expensive. A large amount of money.


An Axe To Grind:

To have a dispute with someone.


Apple of My Eye:

Someone who is cherished above all others.


As High As A Kite:

Anything that is high up in the sky.


At The Drop Of A Hat:

Willing to do something immediately.




Back Seat Driver:

People who criticize from the sidelines, much like someone giving unwanted advice from the back seat of a vehicle to the driver.


Back To Square One:

Having to start all over again.


Back To The Drawing Board:

When an attempt fails and it’s time to start all over.


Baker’s Dozen:



Barking Up The Wrong Tree:

A mistake made in something you are trying to achieve.


Beat A Dead Horse:

To force an issue that has already ended.


Beating Around The Bush:

Avoiding the main topic. Not speaking directly about the issue.


Bend Over Backwards:

Do whatever it takes to help. Willing to do anything.


Between A Rock And A Hard Place:

Stuck between two very bad options.


Bite Off More Than You Can Chew:

To take on a task that is way to big.


Bite Your Tongue:

To avoid talking.


Blood Is Thicker Than Water:

The family bond is closer than anything else.


Blue Moon:

A rare event or occurrence.


Break A Leg:

A superstitious way to say ‘good luck’ without saying ‘good luck’, but rather the opposite.


Buy A Lemon:

To purchase a vehicle that constantly gives problems or stops running after you drive it away.




Can’t Cut The Mustard :

Someone who isn’t adequate enough to compete or participate.


Cast Iron Stomach:

Someone who has no problems, complications or ill effects with eating anything or drinking anything.


Charley Horse:

Stiffness in the leg / A leg cramp.


Chew someone out:

Verbally scold someone.


Chip on his Shoulder:

Angry today about something that occured in the past.


Chow Down:

To eat.


Close but no Cigar:

To be very near and almost accomplish a goal, but fall short.


Cock and Bull Story:

An unbelievable tale.


Come Hell Or High Water:

Any difficult situation or obstacle.


Crack Someone Up:

To make someone laugh.


Cross Your Fingers:

To hope that something happens the way you want it to.


Cry Over Spilt Milk:

When you complain about a loss from the past.


Cry Wolf:

Intentionally raise a false alarm.


Cup Of Joe:

A cup of coffee.


Curiosity Killed The Cat:

Being Inquisitive can lead you into a dangerous situation.


Cut to the Chase:

Leave out all the unnecessary details and just get to the point.




Dark Horse:

One who was previously unknown and is now prominent.


Dead Ringer:

100% identical. A duplicate.


Devil’s Advocate:

Someone who takes a position for the sake of argument without believing in that particular side of the argument. It can also mean one who presents a counter argument for a position they do believe in, to another debater.


Dog Days of Summer:

The hottest days of the summer season.


Don’t count your chickens before they hatch:

Don’t rely on it until your sure of it.


Don’t Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth:

When someone gives you a gift, don’t be ungrateful.


Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket:

Do not put all your resources in one possibility.



Something outstanding.


Down To The Wire:

Something that ends at the last minute or last few seconds.


Drastic Times Call For Drastic Measures:

When you are extremely desperate you need to take extremely desperate actions.


Drink like a fish:

To drink very heavily.


Drive someone up the wall:

To irritate and/or annoy very much.


Dropping Like Flies:

A large number of people either falling ill or dying.


Dry Run:






Eighty Six:

A certain item is no longer available. Or this idiom can also mean, to throw away.


Elvis has left the building:

The show has come to an end. It’s all over.


Ethnic Cleansing:

Killing of a certain ethnic or religious group on a massive scale.


Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining:

Be optimistic, even difficult times will lead to better days.


Everything But The Kitchen Sink:

Almost everything and anything has been included.


Excuse my French:

Please forgive me for cussing.


Cock and Bull Story:

An unbelievable tale.


Cock and Bull Story:

An unbelievable tale.




Feeding Frenzy:

An aggressive attack on someone by a group.


Field Day:

An enjoyable day or circumstance.


Finding Your Feet:

To become more comfortable in whatever you are doing.


Finger lickin’ good:

A very tasty food or meal.


Fixed In Your Ways:

Not willing or wanting to change from your normal way of doing something.


Flash In The Pan:

Something that shows potential or looks promising in the beginning but fails to deliver anything in the end.


Flea Market:

A swap meet. A place where people gather to buy and sell inexpensive goods.


Flesh and Blood:

This idiom can mean living material of which people are made of, or it can refer to someone’s family.


Flip The Bird:

To raise your middle finger at someone.


Foam at the Mouth:

To be enraged and show it.


Fools’ Gold:

Iron pyrites, a worthless rock that resembles real gold.


French Kiss:

An open mouth kiss where tongues touch.


From Rags To Riches:

To go from being very poor to being very wealthy.



An old-fashioned and foolish type of person.


Full Monty:

This idiom can mean either, “the whole thing” or “completely nude”.


Funny Farm:

A mental institutional facility.




Get Down to Brass Tacks:

To become serious about something.


Get Over It:

To move beyond something that is bothering you.


Get Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed:

Someone who is having a horrible day.


Get Your Walking Papers:

Get fired from a job.


Give Him The Slip:

To get away from. To escape.


Go Down Like A Lead Balloon:

To be received badly by an audience.


Go For Broke:

To gamble everything you have.


Go Out On A Limb:

Put yourself in a tough position in order to support someone/something.


Go The Extra Mile:

Going above and beyond whatever is required for the task at hand.


Good Samaritan:

Someone who helps others when they are in need, with no discussion for compensation, and no thought of a reward.


Graveyard Shift:

Working hours from about 12:00 am to 8:00 am. The time of the day when most other people are sleeping.


Great Minds Think Alike:

Intelligent people think like each other.


Green Room:

The waiting room, especially for those who are about to go on a tv or radio show.


Gut Feeling:

A personal intuition you get, especially when feel something may not be right.




Haste Makes Waste:

Quickly doing things results in a poor ending.


Hat Trick:

When one player scores three goals in the same hockey game. This idiom can also mean three scores in any other sport, such as 3 homeruns, 3 touchdowns, 3 soccer goals, etc.


Have an Axe to Grind:

To have a dispute with someone.


He Lost His Head:

Angry and overcome by emotions.


Head Over Heels:

Very excited and/or joyful, especially when in love.


Hell in a Handbasket:

Deteriorating and headed for complete disaster.


High Five:

Slapping palms above each others heads as celebration gesture.


High on the Hog:

Living in Luxury.


Hit The Books:

To study, especially for a test or exam.


Hit The Hay:

Go to bed or go to sleep.


Hit The Nail on the Head:

Do something exactly right or say something exactly right.


Hit The Sack:

Go to bed or go to sleep.


Hocus Pocus:

In general, a term used in magic or trickery.


Hold Your Horses:

Be patient.




Icing On The Cake:

When you already have it good and get something on top of what you already have.


Idle Hands Are The Devil’s Tools:

You are more likely to get in trouble if you have nothing to do.


If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another:

When one thing goes wrong, then another, and another…


In Like Flynn:

To be easily successful, especially when sexual or romantic.


In The Bag:

To have something secured.


In The Buff:



In The Heat Of The Moment:

Overwhelmed by what is happening in the moment.


In Your Face:

An aggressive and bold confrontation.


It Takes Two To Tango:

A two person conflict where both people are at fault.


It’s A Small World:

You frequently see the same people in different places.


Its Anyone’s Call:

A competition where the outcome is difficult to judge or predict.


Ivy League:

Since 1954 the Ivy League has been the following universities: Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Yale, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Harvard.





Crossing the street (from the middle) without using the crosswalk.


Joshing Me:

Tricking me.




Keep An Eye On Him:

You should carefully watch him.


Keep body and soul together:

To earn a sufficient amount of money in order to keep yourself alive .


Keep your chin up:

To remain joyful in a tough situation.


Kick The Bucket:




Diagonally across. Sometimes called Catty-Corner as well.


Knee Jerk Reaction:

A quick and automatic response.


Knock On Wood:

Knuckle tapping on wood in order to avoid some bad luck.


Know the Ropes:

To understand the details.




Last but not least:

An introduction phrase to let the audience know that the last person mentioned is no less important than those introduced before him/her.


Lend Me Your Ear:

To politely ask for someone’s full attention.


Let Bygones Be Bygones:

To forget about a disagreement or argument.


Let Sleeping Dogs Lie:

To avoid restarting a conflict.


Let The Cat Out Of The Bag:

To share a secret that wasn’t suppose to be shared.


Level playing field:

A fair competition where no side has an advantage.


Like a chicken with its head cut off:

To act in a frenzied manner.


liquor someone up:

To get someone drunk.


Long in the Tooth:

Old people (or horses).


Loose Cannon:

Someone who is unpredictable and can cause damage if not kept in check.




Make No Bones About:

To state a fact so there are no doubts or objections.


Method To My Madness:

Strange or crazy actions that appear meaningless but in the end are done for a good reason.


Mumbo Jumbo:

Nonsense or meaningless speech.


Mum’s the word:

To keep quiet. To say nothing.




Nest Egg:

Savings set aside for future use.


Never Bite The Hand That Feeds You:

Don’t hurt anyone that helps you.


New kid on the block:

Someone new to the group or area.


New York Minute:

A minute that seems to go by quickly, especially in a fast paced environment.


No Dice:

To not agree. To not accept a proposition.


No Room to Swing a Cat:

An unusually small or confined space.


Not Playing With a Full Deck:

Someone who lacks intelligence.




Off On The Wrong Foot:

Getting a bad start on a relationship or task.


Off The Hook:

No longer have to deal with a tough situation.


Off the Record:

Something said in confidence that the one speaking doesn’t want attributed to him/her.


On Pins And Needles:

Anxious or nervous, especially in anticipation of something.


On The Fence:



On The Same Page:

When multiple people all agree on the same thing.


Out Of The Blue:

Something that suddenly and unexpectedly occurs.


Out On A Limb:

When someone puts themself in a risky situation.


Out On The Town:

To enjoy yourself by going out.


Over My Dead Body:

When you absolutely will not allow something to happen.


Over the Top:

Very excessive.




Pass The Buck:

Avoid responsibility by giving it to someone else.


Pedal to the metal:

To go full speed, especially while driving a vehicle.


Peeping Tom:

Someone who observes people in the nude or sexually active people, mainly for his own gratification.


Pick up your ears:

To listen very carefully.


Pig In A Poke:

A deal that is made without first examining it.


Pig Out :

To eat alot and eat it quickly.


Pipe Down:

To shut-up or be quiet.


Practice Makes Perfect:

By constantly practicing, you will become better.


Pull the plug:

To stop something. To bring something to an end.


Pulling Your Leg:

Tricking someone as a joke.


Put a sock in it:

To tell noisy person or a group to be quiet.





An offer or deal that is declined right now but willing to accept later.


Raining Cats and Dogs:

A very loud and noisy rain storm.


Ring Fencing:

Seperated usual judgement to guarantee protection, especially project funds.


Rise and Shine:

Time to get out of bed and get ready for work/school.


Rome Was Not Built In One Day:

If you want something to be completely properly, then its going to take time.


Rule Of Thumb:

A rough estimate.


Run out of steam:

To be completely out of energy.




Saved By The Bell:

Saved at the last possible moment.



Someone else who takes the blame.



To escape and not have to pay.


Sick As A Dog:

To be very sick (with the flu or a cold).


Sitting Shotgun:

Riding in the front passenger seat of a car.


Sixth Sense:

A paranormal sense that allows you to communicate with the dead.


Skid Row:

The rundown area of a city where the homeless and drug users live.


Smell A Rat:

To detect somone in the group is betraying the others.


Smell Something Fishy:

Detecting that something isn’t right and there might be a reason for it.


Son of a Gun:

A scamp.



Someone who is left-handed.


Spitting Image:

The exact likeness or kind.


Start From Scratch:

To do it all over again from the beginning.




The Ball Is In Your Court:

It is your decision this time.


The Best Of Both Worlds:

There are two choices and you have them both.


The Bigger They Are The Harder They Fall:

While the bigger and stronger opponent might be alot more difficult to beat, when you do they suffer a much bigger loss.


The Last Straw:

When one small burden after another creates an unbearable situation, the last straw is the last small burden that one can take.


The Whole Nine Yards:

Everything. All of it.


Third times a charm:

After no success the first two times, the third try is a lucky one.


Tie the knot:

To get married.


Til the cows come home:

A long time.


To Make A Long Story Short:

Something someone would say during a long and boring story in order to keep his/her audience from losing attention. Usually the story isn’t shortened.


To Steal Someone’s Thunder:

To take the credit for something someone else did.


Tongue And Cheek:

humor, not to be taken serious.


Turn A Blind Eye:

Refuse to acknowledge something you know is real or legit.


Twenty three skidoo:

To be turned away.




Under the weather:

Feeling ill or sick.


Up a blind alley:

Going down a course of action that leads to a bad outcome.


Use Your Loaf:

Use your head. Think smart.




Van Gogh’s ear for music:

Tone deaf.


Variety Is The Spice Of Life:

The more experiences you try the more exciting life can be.






Wag the Dog:

A diversion away from something of greater importance.


Water Under The Bridge:

Anything from the past that isn’t significant or important anymore.


Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve:

To openly and freely express your emotions.


When It Rains, It Pours:

Since it rarely rains, when it does it will be a huge storm.


When Pigs Fly :

Something that will never ever happen.


Wild and Woolly:

Uncultured and without laws.


Wine and Dine:

When somebody is treated to an expensive meal.


Without A Doubt:

For certain.




X marks the spot:

A phrase that is said when someone finds something he/she has been looking for.




You Are What You Eat:

In order to stay healthy you must eat healthy foods.


You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover:

Decisions shouldn’t be made primarily on appearance.


You Can’t Take it With You:

Enjoy what you have and not what you don’t have, since when you die you cannot take things (such as money) with you.


Your Guess Is As Good As Mine:

I have no idea.




Zero Tolerance:

No crime or law breaking big or small will be overlooked.



“I’ll just teach but I don’t really desire to ‘know’ my students.”

Teaching is about entering into relationship on purpose (intentionally) in order to promote the development of the ELL’s English language skills. The operative word here is “relationship.” Human beings seek “meaning” and have a natural desire to relate.  Language is the vehicle of exchange so that meaningful relationships can develop.  In other words, if you’re not interested in developing meaningful relationships with your students, don’t teach.  It matters much less whether or not you’re really great at relating or skilled in meaningful conversation – these are ‘skills’ (strategies) that can be taught and learned.  While the focus of the relationship IS the development of language skills, full expression of a language cannot be limited to a discussion of linguistic items (verbs, articles, sentence structure, etc…), themes/topics are related to personal and interpersonal concerns, and student motivation is heavily influenced by the quality of the teacher-student relationship.

This MOTIVATION is one of the most effective predictors of language learning success.  Desire (or motivation) is required for language learning.  An unmotivated student is NOT a successful student. Motivation influences how much effort and time we put into learning, and how focused we are on the object/s of learning.   The quality of our relationships is a primary determinant of student motivation to interact repeatedly or routinely; this interaction is the milieu in which our teaching can take place.


“A good teacher talks less and listens more – In a good class, you don’t hear the teacher talk; you hear students talking.”

Teachers model appropriate patterns for students and they ‘lead’ their students to learning.  They ‘talk-aloud’ exercises so students can emulate appropriate responses, and hear the right words pronounced correctly.  When a teacher talks and uses ‘ideal’ English, they provide visual and auditory input for learning purposes.  Once again, the operative words here are ‘ideal’ and ‘for learning’ – Those who know ‘more’ regardless of the subject, tend to dominate relevant conversations and others listen.  The ‘listeners’ gain valuable input and have time to form their own ideas before responding.  They are receiving knowledge and input and then applying reason to provide feedback based on what they learn and process through the exchange.  They generally “want” to listen and hear (the same way we do in a seminar) so they, too, can become more knowledgeable and proficient.  If they are to ever aspire to greater ability, they choose to immerse themselves and to do so primarily by listening to and observing ‘experts’ in action.  That’s why we go to demonstrations of teaching strategies, and that’s why we attend lectures, and read books.  In these settings, learners want less ‘do-it-yourself’ than they want modeling and interaction and descriptive discourse that shows and explains.

Language is not about just using a tool in the abstract or ‘pretend’ arena.  It’s not an abstract science (although it can be for linguists, etc…) – It’s an applied science.  While applied science requires practice and review, it is developed through its use – and it’s used to provide meaningful exchange.  In order to really use a word appropriately and with ease, we have to hear it repeatedly.  Repetition is the mother of all learning.  But repetition extinguishes learning (law of diminishing returns) as boredom sets in (the need for novelty in order to ‘pay attention’ to specific items).   So we require repeated approaches to the same, targeted phenomenon from multiple angles (experiential settings).  This is called “RANGE” – the many ways in which we try to get someone to understand a particular culturo-linguistic feature.  An example might be conveying the meaning of something as simple as, “get out of”.  To ‘get out of a chore’ is nearly the opposite of the question “What did you get out of that lecture?” Certainly, we can add more similar expressions that mean very different things – such as: “Let’s get out of here.”  – and then there’s “What happens to a pianist if she gets out of practice.”  While these items may be more difficult than teaching someone “how to read, write, and say numbers 1 through 10”, both types require repeated ‘showing’ and ‘explaining’ in order to be learned by someone who can’t speak our language.

So that’s the ‘not-so-short’ answer.  You hear LOTS of ‘teacher talk’ both modeling and explaining the language and using it according to its purpose: to provide meaningful exchange.  A good teacher who talks a lot with the purpose of engaging in relationship, has a good command of the language, and the ability to explain concepts – will naturally want verbal feedback and interaction.  Students WILL be engaged either really listening and watching or they will be responding to cues and using the language to express themselves as they also focus on form – the precise targeted linguistic learning item.


“The sooner you get them talking, the better.”

What exactly do you mean by that?  Yes, studies show (see the more ‘research-oriented’ section) that while producing language (talking) is necessary for our definition of “fluency,” forcing its production early on is often counter-productive to achieving full fluency.  Why?  Because it may well have a negative ‘affective impact’ (it might diminish motivation and exacerbate negative feelings related to self-perception and competence) – and part of what is known to be necessary is ‘removing the affective filter’ as Krashen puts it, or removing inhibitions and insecurities.  The best way to encourage production is simply to ‘model’ it by providing lots of good, funny, interesting “input” (teacher talk) at a level slightly above the student’s current ability level (at the i + 1 level).

You don’t make them have to talk and you don’t have to make them talk – You make them read aloud, over and over and over again – and you add humor, explanation, pronunciation, and model the reading with enjoyment!  You ask questions, model responses (Hi, My name is Nancy, what’s yours?) – and encourage active participation – and you quickly ‘step in’ to model and assist verbally when you see hints of faltering and/or embarrassment/pain. When you get right responses, you praise genuinely and with admiration. Good teachers do provide exercises that require verbal repetition and practice.  Students will ‘naturally’ start taking the personal initiative to engage verbally if the modeling is good, and the relationship is healthy.


“Don’t embarrass students by making corrections while engaged in a language learning activity.”

It takes just as long to learn the wrong thing as the right thing; sometimes it takes less time to learn the wrong thing (usually because it’s the easier way). The magic number of average repetitions it takes to ‘automate’ items of language usage (or any small bit of information/skill) is 7.  So, if you let a student pronounce something incorrectly (some of these common errors in Spanish include such items as failing to know when to say asked versus ask Ed, or   especial instead of special) often enough, you will have a fossilized ‘bad habit’; an item of learning that is near-permanently embedded and extremely difficult to “fix”.  The most difficult issues are not in areas where someone has “no knowledge” but rather when they have “wrong knowledge” applied incorrectly and repeatedly.  It will be much like trying to get rid of an accent or slang that has become an integrated part of someone’s persona.


Make corrections the way you breathe air: naturally, routinely, immediately, and continuously.  Breathing air doesn’t keep you from continuing to focus on your activities – and corrections shouldn’t stop or hinder the overall lesson’s goal nor do they need to be embarrassing.  A correction only interrupts the overall objective momentarily – it is addressed to the whole class, and it happens all the time to everyone without diverting the ‘flow’ of the lesson.  If you find yourself correcting everything all the time such that you can’t complete a brief exercise – then you’re engaged in an activity that is greater than i +1 or out of the range of ability for your class.  If you’re in a mixed level class, then encourage the advanced students to do it for you by seating advanced students next to less skilled students.  They won’t worry about stopping the class or embarrassing their neighbor because they know they are helping one another. If you have established a good group spirit and modeled good and helpful relationships, students will be eager to correct one another and to be corrected.


Caveat:  If you yourself don’t use correct English, have a strong slang or accent, or are insecure about correcting others and embarrassing them – work on fixing these problems – because your students will emulate you, you are the role model, the leader – and they’re following you.



“Grammar should be taught only as a minor, separate subject – don’t bore students with it.”

Grammar is the poor stepchild of the modern world, abused, shunned, and mistaken for a bore.  People who don’t like teaching it generally don’t know how to do so, and don’t feel secure about their own knowledge of it.  Grammar can be fun and it should be for any teacher who enjoys language learning and teaching.  Saying you don’t like grammar or can’t teach grammar is much like insisting you love math except you don’t like or do ‘formulas.’  Really.  Then you obviously don’t’ know enough math to teach math to any but the least skilled or youngest students.


Grammar should be taught in small bits because it requires more critical thinking and deduction/reasoning than some other areas of language instruction.  Left on its own as a pure explanation and practice – it can be made to be very boring.  Pure grammar practice should be done as a regular, small part of every week’s agenda.  It requires both clear explanation (so make sure you educate yourself about the item you’ll present) and practice (so find some practical exercises that you like or that you think work well).  If you’re excited about grammar, your students will be, too.


Grammar should also be inserted into lessons whenever it is recognized as a need – and it should be relationship driven.  Much like correcting pronunciation/reading issues, it should be addressed when the teacher recognizes some more or less ‘common’ problem.  But since it takes a bit more time than just saying a word or two and having the student repeat your word, it should be discussed at the end of some logical sequence of activities – but not too far from the point where the problem was noticed, so the discussion is current and meaningful.


Once students understand the structure or framework (grammar) of a language item, they more easily speak correctly, read correctly, and write correctly.  You can’t always ‘predict’ the sequence of grammar instruction even if you have a systematic text to guide you.  One day, suddenly, you realize that everyone is reading, “I’d, he’ll, we’ve, and you’re,” but no one realizes they’re really reading, “I would, he will, we have, and you are”.  What’s more, they think they’re seeing “your, weave, and hell” and it doesn’t make any sense to them.  This becomes a teachable moment you can’t miss!  You don’t have to go into a lengthy diatribe – just spell out the conjugation of the actual words and show how the apostrophe replaces parts of the words.  That’s a good enough start for them to feel less lost, and you can move the grammar point onto your calendar for sometime in the near future when you can focus on it longer.


“Teach simple, segregated bits – stay focused so they get the point and don’t confuse it with related items.”








Teachers MODEL language learning….