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The importance of great books and language-rich conversations

What we can do with written language can be very different from what we can do with spoken language. When we write, we have time time to hone and craft the language, and so the grammar of writing has some differences from the grammar of real-time conversation or speech.

If we don’t immerse student into great writings, we leave them to fall back on what they intuitively know about language, and as a consequence they simply write like they speak.

And studies confirm that the language of children’s books is richer and more complex than the most of spoken language of even college graduates. Thus, children experiencing great children’s book is an unparalleled opportunity to expose them to sophisticated language, vocabulary, and broad knowledge.

That’s why the time in language education is best spent for listening, reading and discussion around great books, and secondarily on language-rich activity rooted in those things.

In my own experience, teacher comments (including mine) on students work (their speaking and writing, etc.) may quite often be vague, too informal, or too colloquial, too chatty, rambling, or repetitive. Students need more meaningful direction than this. They need immersion to great writings and story-telling, language-rich conversations and meaningful comments to actually grow their whole language competence.


how to teach grammar

The problem wasn’t necessarily grammar itself: it was the way it has been taught. As if grammar was a standalone subject where random sentences were divided into their constituent grammatical parts.

In acquisition approach, the study of grammar and memorizing vocabulary is not the end of the learning and assessment, but means to help us know what is possible in the language, and so we can get the job done grammatically creative for different situations. So, grammar is not linguistic straight jackets and rules; it is how creativity manifests itself in language.

The primary way to teach grammar

Here’s the idea: we do not acquire grammar and vocabulary primarily not through out-of-context grammar drilling, e.g. underline adjective, circling the noun, filling in the blank with the right structure, matching picture and words.

This kind of out-of-context drilling activities does neither help us to acquire the grammar/vocabulary nor uncover the beauty in the language. This work doesn’t uncover the beauty of the English language, nor does it it unleash creativity in our children. It may even do the opposite as it shapes students to the writing that serves no real expressive or communicative purpose, but reduced their thought to just finding and getting the ‘right’ answer.

The primary way to acquire grammar and vocabulary is through experiencing exemplary literature (and meaningful conversations and language-rich activities around it). This is where grammar is real. This is where we acquire the ways in which we can play with language to achieve our intentions.

In great text, we are immersed into ways how the author uses their language knowledge and how they organize their words and sentences to make us notice, feel, see or imagine something.

breakthrough distinction: acquisition and learning

A 19th century language educator, M. Gouin, was obsessed with the language of German. His effort to learn German was herculean, people said: He knew everybody’s ‘Method,’ and learned the whole dictionary through and through, but shockingly, he found at the end that he did not know one word of German ‘as his nephew spoke.’ … So, after a ten months’ of his study at German, he returned to France and found that his little nephew—whom, when he left, was about two and a half years old, and not yet able to talk—had done what his uncle had failed to do just in such short of time.

“What!” M. Gouin said, “this child and I have been working for the same time, each at a language. He, playing round his mother, running after flowers, butterflies and birds, without learning, without apparent effort, without even being conscious of his work, is able to say all he thinks, express all he sees, understand all he hears … But I, knew all the grammar, versed in the sciences, versed in philosophy, armed with a powerful will, gifted with a powerful memorizing thousands of vocabularies . . . . have arrived at nothing, or at practically nothing!'”

(Home Education, 305, Charlotte Mason).

Language acquisition is basically what M. Gouin’s nephew and all children in the world naturally do everyday: playing and being fully immersed in day-to-day encounters with others and things in the world. There, they subconsciously (and wealthily!) acquire the language use embedded in the practice.

When it happens: when they are acquiring the language, they are usually not aware they are acquiring it, because it’s subconscious.

On the other hand, language learning is similar with what M. Gouin did two centuries ago and what many students still do in today. They heavily focus to the study of out-of-context grammatical rules and vocabulary memorizations for constructing out-of-context sentences.

While acquisition is a subconscious and intuitive process, study is very a conscious and cognitive about the mechanism of the language. So when we are studying about a language, we are aware that we are learning about a language: about its grammatical rules, its vocabulary, etc.

Krashen, Stephen D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

how we acquire language: comprehensible input

In language acquisition, one of most important questions is then, how do we acquire language? The research reveals a simple common-sense answer: We acquire language when we understand what we hear or read.

In other words, we acquire language when we receive language input that is comprehensible for us. Language input that is not (reasonably) comprehensible will not turn into meaningful intake that we can acquire.

For example, if you are a new Chinese learner, then listening and being fully immersed in a native-level Chinese speech, might not be so helpful for acquisition goal. You may get lots and lots of input—a continuous stream of perfectly pronounced Mandarin, but if the Chinese input that are comprehensible for you were too little, you might not know more Chinese than before. Therefore, an immersion program might not be automatically enough or efficient for developing language competence, but comprehensible.

On the other hand, if foreign language input is made comprehensible, then it can actually turn into intake that we can process and work with. There we can subconsciously acquire and store it into our long-term memory. Just like that.

Krashen, Stephen D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

how we acquire language: compelling (not just interesting) input

We know that the study of grammatical rules and vocabulary memorization can be so boring. That’s why many teachers nowadays are trying to make their teaching a bit more fun by adding some game activities in their lesson, and use fresh graphics in their presentation slides.

This (gamification and fresh graphics) approach is exactly what many language learning apps are trying to do as well (e.g. Duolingo and Babbel). They want to make language learning less boring by using some gamified learning processes and interesting graphics in their applications.

Indeed, gamification can add some fun, and cute graphics can seem interesting. But the problem of this approach is basically sugar-coating. It coats the boring content of the language learning (meaningless grammatical rules a nd vocabulary memorization) with the some games and graphics, so that the students would want to consume it.

Instead of focusing on making the language content intrinsically interesting in itself, this approach depends on the extrinsic to make the content less boring.

A fundamentally new approach to language education: acquisition

Instead of using some extrinsic tricks, coating and rewards, we want to help students completely engaged and stay motivated by using the intrinsic power of the language itself, that is by using great stories, meaningful conversations and language-rich activities around it.

So, the story we select has to be interesting, or better: it has to be compelling.

Compelling story/conversation/activity is one that is so meaningful and so powerful, that it can engage us completely into it. Imagine the moment when we were lost in a compelling story, our sense of self and sense of time was diminished: Only the story existed. The language faded into the background, and we temporarily forgot that it was in another language!

Compelling story/conversation/activity is one that can help establish “flow state,” which is a mental state in which students are fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

This flow state is the optimal state for our brain to acquire language and knowledge. The more engaged we are, the greater the input we can subconsciously acquire.

Vice versa: if our students are not engaged, their brain won’t acquire the language. They feel bored, disengaged and thus wander to find another thing that can hook their attention. And if such disengagement happens perpetually, they might filter out and eventually dislike the language entirely (and perhaps get labeled as inattentive, unmotivated, talkative, etc.).

The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis, Stephen Krashen

how language acquisition occurs: tolerate ambiguity

Comprehensible input doesn’t mean that the input must be comprehensible in every of its detail. An optimal input is one that is still comprehensible even if there is a little noise or some incomprehensible pieces in it.

Therefore, we don’t need to understand 100% of the story. We don’t need to understand the complete meaning of each unfamiliar vocabulary or grammar, because every time we encounter a new word or a new structure in a comprehensible context, we will still be able to “feel” and acquire some sense of its meaning and use.

If we are exposed to enough meaningful stories (conversations and language-rich activities), and the stories are reasonably comprehensible, our brain will construct the meaning and usage of the words and the structure, and gradually substantial vocabulary and grammatical growth must take place.

And if the input is actually compelling, we might not even notice that there is noise. The noise fades into the background as we delegate the processing of that noise to our background intuition.

Several studies have compared the impact of hearing unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar in the context of a compelling story, helped by “comprehension-aiding supplementation,” with the traditional direct teaching of grammar and vocabulary. The consistent conclusion is that the former is more efficient: hearing unfamiliar words in the context of compelling stories results in more acquisition per minute.

So the time is better spent for more great stories, meaningful conversations and language-rich activities around it, in order to substantially grow language competence.

how we acquire language: language-rich input

It is true that we can experience flow state (being “lost” in the process) not only when hearing or reading a story, but also in many other everyday activities, like when we play game, or just walking, staring at the sunset, listening to music, chatting with friends, etc.

But notice that not all activities are equally language-rich. For example, we may be lost for hours and hours in a nonverbal game or a game that’s not language-rich, but it doesn’t give us language-rich input needed for language acquisition and literacy development.

So no matter how comprehensible or compelling an activity is, if it’s not language-rich, then it alone is not efficient and strategic for the purpose of language acquisition and developing literacy.

how we acquire language: abundant input

Here’s the idea: If we provide students with enough comprehensible input, the vocabulary and structures they are ready to acquire must be present in the input. This means that we might not have to make sure that they are there: we don’t have to deliberately focus on certain points of grammar given enough comprehensible input.

Just give students lots and lots of comprehensible input and they will acquire and grow substantial grammar and vocabulary and their overall language competence.

So one of the primary goals in acquisition-based teaching is to first focuses on providing students with abundant comprehensible input for building a solid intuitive (mental) capacity of the language which enables them to produce the language fluently and accurately, rather than immediately embarking on language production (speaking and writing).

the best forms of “optimal” input

“Optimal input” is input that is comprehensible, compelling, language-rich and abundant, and research found that the best forms of optimal input that satisfy all those four conditions so far is listening to stories.

Listening to stories is also a very powerful and pleasant way to familiarize and lead students to the second best form of optimal input, which is reading texts.

Library of abundant quality resources is thus one of the core components we need provide for students and teachers alike to practice reading aloud: books that are compelling, comprehensible and serve the development of the good life.

building the “intuition” of language for speaking

If foreign input is made comprehensible, students will be able to turn it as real intake they can (subconsciously) process and work with. Overtime, this type of exposure provides the fundamental data required for building intuition (mental representation) of the language.

Once students begin to build the intuition of the language and feel “click” with the language, they can gradually tap for self-expression and naturally produce output. Another way to state this is that learner production of language is allowed to emerge on its own, as they are compelled to speak their mind.

Naturally, when we have received enough comprehensible input, and build the intuition of the target language, our brain will be able to run in reverse. Our target language will start spilling out of us.

Once we reach this point, we’re ready for output. We’ve spent all this time building a pool of latent ability through input. The next step is to convert that latent ability into output ability.

So exposing yourself to these situations that cause your brain to search through your pool of acquired language and make those words and phrases available to you for output is the way to develop output ability.

Sometimes, our brain won’t be able to find the right thing to say or write. These moments show you where you haven’t yet acquired the necessary language. Armed with this knowledge, you can target your immersion and fill in the gaps. This output/input loop allows you to quickly achieve basic fluency.

Therefore, we need to spend more time on student comprehension (through listening and reading) in order to build their intuition of the language, rather than immediately embark on the drilling of the language production (speaking and writing) itself.