Acquisition & the Teacher

What is the teacher’s role in an acquisition-oriented learning model?

Student Centred Learning is the goal du jour amongst teachers—especially those in the EFL/ESL world. Textbooks all focus on it, seminars are dedicated to it and training programs will not pass you if you cannot demonstrate it in your classroom. And all the better for it too.

I recently wrote about a problem I am encountering a lot here in Indonesia—it’s that teachers have heard the term, Student Centred Learning and are quick to tell you that it is their target, but often cannot really explain or properly demonstrate what it means.

The second problem I encounter in this vein manifests itself in the form of a question, “what is left for the teacher?” As teacher becomes facilitator, moving farther away from the spotlight, and as the student focus shifts from the blackboard, there is a fear for some that the teacher is facilitating himself out of a job. All this focus on how to make the student more independent, how to encourage autonomous learning and reduce reliance on the teacher, what is there for the teacher to do in the classroom?

Of course, the reality is that the teacher’s job, in fact, becomes harder, the workload greater. Far from placing all of the efforts on the student, the teacher must do more now than ever before; it’s just that much of the teacher’s input has moved from the classroom to the staffroom.

Language Acquisition

I’ll start by readdressing Student Centred Learning, outlining what our goal really is when we decide to work towards a student-centered classroom.

What it really means to put the student at the center of the learning experience is to attempt to recreate the acquisition process in the classroom. Acquisition is not the same as learning to the educationalist. Learning is what happens to students in a classroom with a teacher. Acquisition is what happens to all individuals while they’re traversing the world, whether alone or with company. It might be slightly pedantic to enforce the use of different words too heavily, but the different approach has a major impact.

Let’s start by taking a look at the acquisition model for English as a second/foreign language. Through the diagram, we can see the process undertaken when an individual moves from a state of not knowing a piece of language—e.g. a word or a structure—to a state of being able to comfortably and appropriately use it in daily conversation.

Here, the individual encounters a piece of language, let’s say a word, that they do not know. First, they must somehow find the meaning of that word. How can they do this? Perhaps by looking it up in a dictionary, perhaps by asking someone, perhaps by guessing based on the context.

Once they have found the meaning of the word, they can try using it themselves, in a conversation, for example. If they use it correctly, then they will be able to go on using it confidently in future interactions.

It is through this process that we all learn our first languages, and we all—excepting rare and special cases—become very proficient speakers of our respective first languages. That is why it has become desirable to recreate the process in the classroom: it is natural,  it is universal and it is effective.

Effective it is indeed. But it is not especially efficient. The truth is that the acquisition model displayed above is somewhat of an ideal. In practice, things are a little messier than the diagram suggests. At almost each step, there is room for complication.

Complications in Acquisition

Right from the beginning, if our learner encounters the new word in conversation, it is completely possible that they might mishear the word, meaning that the entire process that follows is based upon an error. It can be very confusing for the learner and they might spend a long time trying to identify what the word was before they can actually learn what it means. This might also happen because the word is simply a considerably higher level of language than they have reached so far in their acquisition, such as medical terminology or other such jargon. This is especially likely with structures even more so than with vocabulary.

At the stage of finding the meaning of the word, there are several different approaches the learner could take. They might just directly ask the speaker what the word means or else go on to ask a friend after the conversation has finished. In this case, the explanation might be too abstract or complex for the learner to fully comprehend, as native speakers are not always the best at describing their own language. It might also happen that the explanation given is not completely accurate, as again, everyday speakers of a language are not always the most reliable in this regard.

Our learner might instead choose to look up the word in a dictionary or some other similar resource. This is generally quite reliable, though the problem of idiomatic use comes into play here, in that it is possible the speaker was using the word in some peculiar way at the tie of the encounter. Even in cases of more standard use, though, there is still room for confusion where a word has multiple entries listed in the dictionary describing different senses and meanings; finding the right one can be tricky for a learner.

Finally, if our learner is feeling confident or else does not have access to the above resources for some reason, then she might try to work out the meaning for herself using clues from the context. This is a great skill for a learner to be able to employ, and developing it is essential to ongoing learning. However, it should also be quite self-explanatory why this approach is not particularly reliable.

Obtaining an inaccurate definition from any of the above approaches can lead to confusion in later stages and will make the whole process longer.

Once the learner has an idea of what the word means, she can go on to use it in an interaction. This could be by hearing it and responding, or by saying it herself and expecting a certain response. If she has the meaning correct at this point, then the response will be appropriate and will assure her of her understanding. If she has the meaning wrong, then the response will likely not be as expected and she will need to go back to the previous step and try to find a more accurate meaning. Furthermore, if the misuse is inappropriate it can lead to embarrassment, which in the worst cases might prohibit further attempts.

Already, there is a sense of trial and error here, which by its very definition is inefficient. However, there is also room for an even greater disruption from an inaccurate understanding. It is quite possible that the learner might have the wrong meaning for the word, but when she uses it still get the desired effect.

I’ll illustrate with an example. Perhaps our learner has just encountered the new word “spoon”, but for some reason, the word has been incorrectly defined to her as a pronged implement used for piercing and eating food. Now imagine she is at a restaurant and she has a spoon and a knife on her table and she needs a fork; she asks the waiter for a spoon and he sees that on her table she already has a spoon and a knife, recognising that she is not a native speaker, he assumes that what she needs is a fork. Our learner needed a pronged implement to eat with, she asked for a spoon and she got what she expected. Now, her inaccurate understanding of the word has been reinforced and it will be even more confusing to her next time she tries it out.

This is just one of the ways that feedback can be unreliable. When non-native speakers speak to native speakers, the native speaker will, in most cases, do whatever they can to make life easier for the learner. Of course, not being a teacher, the native speaker will usually be focused on facilitating successful communication rather than facilitating learning.

This trial and error process in natural acquisition can take quite a while. It might need several attempts before the correct meaning is properly acquired and in the real world, it might take days or weeks for the learner to encounter the word a second time. This can make for a very long process indeed. Of course, the longer it takes, the harder the meaning is to internalize and so it becomes even longer.

Once the accurate meaning has been learned and the learner has been able to successfully apply the word in communication several times, she will begin to feel confident using it. This should be the end of the process, however, there is still one more hurdle to cross. After this point, it is very likely that the learner will over generalize and try to use the word as she has learned it in various contexts, finding that in some contexts it is not, in fact, appropriate. This will first of all knock her confidence and will also set off a secondary process of trying to find when it is and is not appropriate to use this word.

Teacher Assisted Acquisition

Once we have inserted all the possible complications, the diagram that we are left with is much more like the one shown above. It is easy to see that, while the billions of native speakers and their respective language prove that this is an effective model, it is far from efficient. In fact, one of the major benefits we have when acquiring our first language is that time is not an issue. We have several years to devote to acquiring our language and we are surrounded constantly with chances to encounter it.

However, when it comes to learning a second language, for various reasons, our time is often far more limited and we might encounter the language far less frequently—perhaps not at all outside of the classroom. This is why, if we are to recreate the acquisition model in the classroom, we need to tighten it up a little. Here I shall go through all the places that the teacher can play a role in solving the problems that acquisition introduces.

Solving the Problem of Acquisition

First and foremost, one of the most important roles of the teacher is planning the syllabus so that the students encounter new language at the right time, i.e. only after they have learned all of the foundational elements required to understand the new language. This maximizes the student’s chance of understanding the language in the first place. Outside of the classroom, there is nothing like this, learners just walk around encountering language of all levels of difficulty at random.

The second thing the teacher can do is design the encounter so that all of the necessary materials and support are there to help the students understand the new language. The new language should be introduced clearly and unambiguously and should have plenty of context so that students can work out meaning for themselves.

Once the students have had a go at finding the meaning, either by working it out or looking it up, the teacher applies the extremely important input of “correct/confirm”, which means either telling the student that they were correct or telling them to try again and perhaps offering some prompts. This drastically reduces or even completely removes the need for trial and error and with it the risk of embarrassment at inappropriate uses.

It should also be part of the lesson, or it should be addressed in future lessons revisiting the same language, when are where it is appropriate and not appropriate to use the language and how it might need to be modified in certain circumstances.

Making Acquisition Work in the Classroom

During the lesson, it must appear as though the students are the ones making the effort and that the teacher is merely facilitating their efforts so that they find success. However, to do this well is no mean feat. In fact, the teacher had it much easier in the Teacher-Centered classes of old, because all they had to do then was turn up with the textbook and read from their materials, the students following silently as they go.

Student Centred does not mean hands off for the teacher, quite the contrary. In order to bring acquisition into the classroom and make Student Centred Learning work well, a much greater effort is required in planning before the lesson, and a much higher level of preparation is required so that the teacher can be ready to follow the students in whatever direction they may choose to take the lesson.

The teacher must possess a much more flexible knowledge because the student’s questions can come from a much broader spectrum since they are learning from a freer environment, not bound by the pages of a textbook. The teacher must be more in control of the classroom, as students will be moving around and interacting with the environment and each other, rather than just sitting at their desks turning pages.

Teacher as facilitator is nothing like the teacher’s death sentence. Rather it is a revitalization to a tired and ineffectual role, bringing new life and far more value than ever before.

What is your understanding of the teacher-as-facilitator paradigm? Does it differ from mine? And what experience have you had recreating Acquisition in the classroom? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear from you. 


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, kevin dooley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.