logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

How learning happens: the essential guide


This is not a website about psychology but there are some fundamental ways of seeing learning that you should know about.
What follows refers to second-language learning, not how we acquire our first language(s).  For that, you should refer to the guide to Chomsky and the guide to the differences and similarities between first- and second-language learning.  Both guides are linked in the table of related guides at the end.


Deductive vs. Inductive learning

Look at this:

In this language the past tense is formed by adding em- to the front of the verb if it begins with a vowel or just e- if it begins with a consonant.
What is the past tense of the following verbs?
Click on the table when you have an answer.

deductive inductive 2

Easy?  Yes, but it was meant to be.  The rule was very simple and most real languages are not at all so accommodating.
What you have demonstrated is your ability to learn deductively.  You were given the rule and from it could deduce the correct form of the verbs.

Now try this one.

In this language the plural of some common nouns is as follows.
What are the plurals of the three nouns at the end of the list?
What is the rule for forming plurals?
Click on the table when you have an answer.


Not quite so easy because you had three forms to consider.  However, if you successfully completed the task, you have demonstrated your ability to learn inductively.  You were given the examples and from there you worked out the rule and applied it to the three unknown items.

This distinction in how things are learnt underlies many teaching procedures and the way items of language are presented in coursebooks and other materials.

For example, we can give people a set of rules about how to lay out a formal letter (sender's address at the top right, recipient's address on the left, date below the sender's address and so on).  Then we can ask the learners to construct a letter with correct layout.  That's a purely deductive learning approach.
On the other hand, we can give the learners two or three examples of formal letters laid out conventionally and ask them to look at the layout.  Then we can ask them to work out what the rules are and apply them.  That's an inductive approach.

There are arguments on both sides but the consensus view is often that inductive approaches are more effective in terms of retention (because of the effort which is needed) but that deductive approaches are time efficient in classrooms and good for revision.
It's up to you, of course, which approach you take but you need to know which it is and why you are applying it.


Which way?

Much nonsense is spoken about taking either an inductive or a deductive approach to learning.  there are three problems with this:

  1. This is not an either-or distinction.  Even if one starts with a purely inductive approach in the classroom, the aim has to be for the learners to hypothesise a rule (preferably the right one) and then apply it to further examples of the target language.  The second procedure is, of course, purely deductive.  There is little point in putting learners to the trouble of constructing a rule from exemplification if they are not then encouraged to apply it.
  2. On the other hand, starting with a deductive approach and supplying a rule from the outset nearly always results in the need to refine the rule later to take account of more complex forms.  Even if we knew what they are, it would not be possible to supply all the rules for using, say, verb tenses in English so any rule which is presented to learners has to be no more than an approximation.
  3. Some elements of structure in any language are very complicated and trying to work out what the rules are for, for example, using adjectives in English or getting the case structures right in Finnish from examples only would simply take far too long (and probably fail).


Co-text, context and meaning

How many of the words in the spoof languages above are you able to remember?  Right, one or two at best.
That's because the words were presented to you without any meaning or context attached to them.  It is very difficult to remember language which has no meaning and is not set in context.  If, however, we put a word in a sentence with some co-text, it's easier for you to take a stab at the meaning and remember it.  For example,

If you don't dungol the dwintii, the water will just keep flowing out.

In this case, we know that dungol is a verb and that dwintii is a plural noun (because we remembered the rule better than we remembered the example, incidentally).  It's possible that we won't be wrong if we imagine dungol means turn off and a dwint is a tap.  That's much better already.  We have added co-text (i.e., other words around the targets which we do understand).
Language without co-text is not meaningful and very hard to learn
Now let's add context (i.e., the setting in which the language occurs):

garden tools Scene: two people working in the garden, one old, one young.

Older person: Go and umblint the kluma, will you?  It's on the floor next to the spade.
Younger person: OK and I'll bring a genge to cut the edge of the lawn.
Older person: Thanks Lokkertan the kluma with water, please.
Younger person:
Will do.

Now we have context and co-text so it's much easier to figure out what the language means and how it's used.  How much can you understand now?
Click here when you have a list in your head or on paper.

We have acquired quite a lot of language from a simple scene and a four-part dialogue and that's all due to our being given context and co-text and applying a bit of our knowledge of the world.  Note, too, that we haven't only acquired the meaning of lexis, but have also gained some insight into word grammar (imperative forms and plurals etc.).
It is perfectly possible that you will remember the four unknown words even weeks after you have read this page and that is, of course, very significant.

Incidentally, you have also probably figured out from your knowledge of the world that the older person is in charge and that phrases such as will you? and please are used to soften the imperative nature of an utterance.  Not bad at all.



Right, everyone.  Please write down:

  1. Two things you have at home that you can lokkertan with water
  2. One thing you can lokkertan with petrol
  3. When you last used a kluma and what for
  4. Three things you must umblint today
  5. If you have ever used a genge

Now, stand up and come to the middle of the room, please.  You need to talk to everyone until you find someone who has a list which is completely different from yours by asking questions.  Ready?  You have 6 minutes.  Go.

What's the purpose of this activity?  Think for a minute and click here.


Factors which affect learning

Before we start this section, think for a moment about what factors inherent to your learners will affect how well they can learn.

Here's a list of factors with some space for comments.  Look through the categories on the left, make up your own mind whether it is important and why and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

eye open
eye open
eye open
eye open
Beliefs about learning
eye open
eye open

A further important factor concerns the relationship between the learner's first language (or one of them) and the target language.  The more closely related these are, the easier it will be learn the second or subsequent language.
There are, of course, classroom factors over which you have some control such as the atmosphere in the room, your approach and the nature of the environment.  Given that many of the factors which affect learning are not amenable to change by teachers, we should take advantage of the ones that are.
For more, see the guide to motivation, linked below.



Noticing is being consciously aware of the language you see and hear (noticing language) and the gap between what you produce and what you should be producing (noticing the gap).
There is a guide to noticing on this site, linked below.

Related guides
noticing for the guide to the a key learning and teaching strategy
Chomsky for the guide to a very influential language theorist
learning styles to see how the (so-called) theories about how people learn are sometimes used to plan
motivation for an essentials-only guide to this area
first- and second-language acquisition for a more technical guide to some of the main theories about how we acquire language(s)

Lightbown, P and Spada N, Factors affecting second language learning, in Candlin, C and Mercer, N (Eds.), 2001, English Language Teaching in its Social Context, Abingdon UK: Routledge
Lightbown, P and Spada N, 2013, How Languages are Learned (4th ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press