logo  ELT Concourse: a free training course for TKT: modules 1, 2 and 3
The Concourse

TKT Module 1: Background to language learning
Exposure to language and focus on form

exposure



how

How do we learn another language?

The short answer is that nobody really knows.  There are, however, some good theories.


keys

Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • structuralism
  • communicative approach
  • learning vs. acquisition
  • input
  • noticing

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.

There is a guide on this site which will tell you more about how the history of methodology and learning theories are connected.  Here we will only discuss what you need for TKT.


4

4 different approaches

Read these statements from learners of English and think about the different ways they think learning happens.

learner 1
Mary
I need to focus on the grammar and vocabulary of the language and do lots of exercises in the classroom and at home.
All languages are just structure plus words and I need to learn how to put them together.
pitt
Brad
Learning grammar and words doesn't help me.
I learnt English by watching lots of English-language TV programmes, reading magazines and just listening to English people talking.
As long as the language isn't
too difficult and I can understand, I pick up new structures and vocabulary easily.
learner 3
Sharma
I'm very sociable and I enjoy communicating with people in English.  I don't always get it right, of course, but I can get my message across and the harder I try to communicate, the better I get.
I only look at a grammar book after I have tried everything else!
learner 4Verity I learn in all sorts of ways.
I look at grammar books and do exercises and I also talk
and listen as much as I can in English.
When I hear English spoken or read something, I deliberately try to see how what people say or what people write is different from what I say and write.
That way, I can get better and better.
think Task 1: Can you match the description of learning theory to the pictures?
Click on the eye open to show the picture and the clue.
Learning theory Learner
Structural approach
The theory is that we need deliberately to learn grammar and structure before we can communicate accurately what we want to say.
Most schools around the world take this approach to learning a language and many on-line courses do the same.

eye open
learner 1Mary:
"I need to focus on the grammar and vocabulary of the language"
Communicative approach
The theory is that we learn through the effort of trying to communicate.  Communication is the goal of teaching and any structural work is a support for that, not an end in itself.
Some people take the view that just trying to communicate will work and we don't need to focus on structure at all.
eye open
learner 3Sharma:
"I can get my message across and the harder I try to communicate, the better I get"
Acquisition theory
The theory is that we can learn a second language in a similar way to our first language.  We don't consciously learn but providing the
input is understood and only a little above our level, we can pick up the language rather than learn the language.
This is
acquisition vs. learning theory.
eye open
pittBrad:
"I learnt English by watching lots of English-language TV programmes, reading magazines and just listening to English people talking."
Noticing
The theory is that learners need to
notice the way their own language is different from what they hear and read (noticing the gap) and also actively focus on the language they hear (noticing the language) so they can say "Ah, I see, that's how it works in English".
eye open
learner 4Verity:
"When I hear English spoken or read something, I deliberately try to see how what people say or what people write is different from what I say and write."


which

So which one is right?

Nobody really knows but it seems quite likely that they all are (or none of them is).
People are complicated and we learn in complicated ways.  The truth probably is that we all use all these ways of learning a language.


students

Classroom implications

think Task 2: Take each of the theories and try to think what it means for the classroom.  When you have an answer, click on the eye open for some ideas.
Learning theory Learner
Structural approach
eye open
If this is the right approach to learning, we are going to spend a lot of time in the classroom doing grammar exercises.  As a structural syllabus is the way most coursebooks are organised, this will flow naturally.  Many learners find explicit focus on form both helpful and familiar.
For more, go to the guide to teaching grammar.
Communicative approach
eye open
If the theory is right, the struggle to communicate is a positive learning experience.
Giving learners the opportunity to communicate as far as possible with language they already know before providing more help and teaching new structures and lexis will be useful, especially if they then get the chance to try again and are more successful.
For more, go to the guide to teaching functional language.
Acquisition theory
eye open
If this is right, learners need continual and repeated exposure to as much language as possible which is just above their current level.  They can get this if the teacher selects texts for reading and listening / watching with care and sensitivity.
For more, go to the guide to Krashen and the Natural Approach.
Noticing
eye open
This will not always come naturally but teachers can help if they highlight language and ways of expressing things in the classroom and encourage learners to focus on how they say something and how native speakers might express it.
For more, go to the guide to noticing.


self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

  • How can a structural approach be mixed with a communicative approach?
  • Explain the difference between learning and acquisition.
  • Explain how input becomes output.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


practice

Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A short matching task
Test 2 A 10-item, multiple-choice test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to the role of error.