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Relating 'definitions of learning' to 'choice of language teaching methods'

Your preferred teaching methods are likely to relate to your beliefs on how people learn:


Indicate your level of agreement with the following ideas on a scale of 5 [AGREE COMPLETELY] to 0 [DISAGREE COMPLETELY]

Have a preliminary go. Before giving your final ratings, use the associated links to to uncover more information on these different approaches to learning.


  1. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge by study, usually involving a course of study, syllabus or curriculum.

    [Theory underlying the traditional Euro-American curricula of the 19th century. Contrast with the ideas on progressive education which emerged in the late 19th Century and gathered pace in the 20th century.]

  2. Learning is a permanent change in behaviour brought about by experience.

    [Behaviourist theory: free will is illusory, and that all behavior is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement. See Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner. Contrast with the cognitive science approach to learning which grew out of an intellectual movement in the 1950s associated with Noam Chomsky]

  3. Learning is the sudden or slow acquisition of insight into the rules governing certain relationships in the environment.

    [Discovery learning: Jerome Bruner argues that "Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem solving". See also Jean Piaget's views on experienced based educational opportunities and the 'learner-centred approach'.

  4. Learning is the discovery of new facts and relating them to those already known.

    See Attention, encoding, storage and retrieval - how people learn: four cognitive processes every teacher should know. See also active learning theory

  5. Behaviour involving purposeful use of motor muscular acrivity (a skill) cannot be learned without practice. The more practice the more successfully it is learned.

    [Pronunciation: motor muscular activity - see Teaching Foreign-Language Skills Wilga M Rivers [1981] on pronunciation

  6. Using a language is a skill which has to be learned by practising it.

    [See Direct method education. Contrast with Grammar-translation method. See also (more generally) Experiental learning

  7. Successful practice is more effective than making mistakes. (Role of mistakes: risk-takers / mistake-makers make better language learners. Different kinds of mistakes e.g. failure of motor muscular system)

  8. The amount of practice needed depends upon the complexity of the skills involved.

    See Structural approach and contrast with ideas on compexity within articles relating to Second Language Acquisition

  9. It is better to break down a complex skill into separate components and practise them separately.

    The 'atomistic' or 'synthetic approach' (breaking things down into structural units to be assembled by the learner) is described in "Notional Syllabuses [Oxford 1976] by D. A. Wilkins. He contrasts this to analytic approaches which he also describes in conjunction with his specifications for notional / functional syllabus design. In response to Wilkins' ideas, see Robert O'Neill's article on the limits of Notional / Functional syllabuses and the importance of structures or language patterns in the generative use of language i.e. expressing personal messages such as "my guinea pig died with its legs crossed", which you would never find in a phrasebook or as an item considered to be of high functional frequency by an English coursebook writer.

  10. The more difficult what is to be learned appears to be, the more unlikely it is to be learned.

    See motivation in second and foreign language learning and Alison Mackey's Guardian article [26th June 2014] on why motivation is the key to language learning.

    See also English For Specific Purposes by Ronald Mackay & Alan Mountford [1978] page 138: 5.2 Grading of texts (length & complexity); page 140: The Grammar Syllabus 6.1 Selection and Grading of Structures.

  11. The more pointless what is to be learned appears to be, the more unlikely it is to be learned.

    Relevance: see English For Specific Purposes by Ronald Mackay & Alan Mountford [1978] Chapter 2 page 21: Identifing the Nature of the Learner's Needs.

    Functional as well as structural: see Waystage 1990: (pre-intermediate level) and Threshold 1990 (intermediate level) syllabus specification, by J.A. Van Ek and J.L.M. Trim [1979/1980; revised 1998]. These are the syllabus specifications set by the Council of Europe for modern language courses at the intermediate level and pre-intermediate levels respectively. These needs analysis checklists are probably easier to work with than the more exhaustive procedures contained in John Munby's Communicative Syllabus Design: A Sociolinguistic Model for Designing the Content of Purpose-Specific Language Programmes (Cambridge University Press 1981).

  12. The more mysterious what is learned appears to be, the more unlikely it is to be learned.

    In dealing with a situation which is new to them learners tend to equate it with what they are already familiar with. See Piaget's theory of cognitive development: children construct an understanding of the world around them, experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment, then adjust their ideas accordingly. it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behavior to account for new knowledge (accommodation).

  13. The smaller differences are, the less likely they are to be perceived.

    Learner English Michael Swan (Ed.), Bernard Smith (Ed.) [26/04/2001] highlights common mistakes made by learners of English as a Second Language. Some mistakes are assumed to arise from structural interference from the learner's native language (L1) and others arise because L1 and L2 (the second or target language) have differences phonological systems. Sometimes distinctions are so small (e.g. the quality and length of the vowel sounds in "ship" and "sheep" or the initial consonant sounds in "right" and "light") that learners without these precise phonemes in their L1 are unable to hear the difference. Contrast and comparison is therefore widely used in the teaching of pronunciation (see Minimal Pairs) and grammar. For the use of contrast and comparison in semantico-grammatical relationships, see Meaning and the English Verb Geoffrey Leech [09/09/2004]. See also A Communicative Grammar of English Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik [06/01/2003]

  14. A skill has only been learned properly when it can be adapted successfully to unfamiliar situations.

    See learning transfer. See also the evaluation of learning and development in the workplace. In the 1960s and 1970s, 'transfer' was referred to by some language educators as part of the teaching process - step 1: presentation, step 2: practice; step 3: transfer. Often, the inference was that step 3 needed to take command of a certain skill (e.g. listening to spoken English) or piece of language (appropriate use of the Present Perfect Tense) 'outside of the classroom'. Until performance was tested there, the inference was sometimes that learning was incomplete. However, I would question the eagerness to devalue the classroom as a place where good communication skills can be finalised. I can envisage many exchanges between people (native speakers and non-native speakers) where the 'intrinsic qualities of the classroom' (as opposed to any other room or space) are irrelevant or neutral. A classroom does not have to be an unstimulating learning environment. Perhaps education systems in previous centuries where suffering (rows of uncomportable desks) was assumed to be a necessary condition before any learning could take place, have given the classroom a bad reputation. Preoccupations with 'classroom English' and 'teacher-talk' perhaps need review.
    See Robert O'Neill's article on Teacher-talk in the language class.

    It is the quality of the environment (wherever it is) and the quality of the input (whoever is talking) which matter in language learning. Now that so much learning takes place alone on mobile devices and home computers, perhaps the opportunities for face-to-face communication in a classroom may be seen as superior to Skype! The classroom in my view has been unfairly associated with an 'artificial learning environment' while classrooms are as 'real' / 'authentic' and can be just as 'stimulating' as any other place.


I am indebted to the late Robert O'Neill for giving me permission to use his excellent articles in the next section -

a 'Language Acquisition Forum' on [i] current methods & approaches and [ii] the role of the teacher:

Prepare for a series of articles which should prove fascinating to practising teachers for many decades to come. Both 'language acquisition' and 'classroom observation' attract many research studies, yet much writing on these subjects has a theoretical feel. Robert's articles make sense to people who do the job of language teacher. Long may his ideas live!


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