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How can learners acquire more complex language?

Question:

submitted by, Juan Atienza, English Teacher, Manila Philippines

How can learners acquire more complex language, rather than keep re-using language they have already acquired?

Dr Richards Responds:

The concept of restructuring helps explain how learners acquire more complex language. Restructuring refers to the learner adjusting his or her linguistic competence as new forms are added to it. “Noticing” can facilitate this process if the learner notices differences between his or her own language use and the use of more advanced speakers (referred to as noticing the gap). Tasks that require the leaner to “stretch” his or her linguistic resources – i.e. to find new and more complex ways of saying things) – can facilitate the process of restructuring. For example students might first carry out a spoken task such as sharing their experiences with travel in foreign countries. During this activity the focus is on information sharing and elaborating their experiences with details and comments but will little attention to language form. The activity might then be followed by a written task in which students prepare a written report of their travel experiences. This time they are given guidelines for the use of past tense, sequence markers, and complex sentences, thus “stretching” the language they used during the spoken phase of the task. Here is an example from Swain (1999) of a restructuring task: students, working together in pairs, are each given a different set of numbered pictures that tell a story. Together the pair of students must jointly construct the story-line. After they have worked out what the story is, they write it down. In so doing, students encounter linguistic problems they need to solve to continue with the task. These problems include how best to say what they want to say; problems of lexical choice; which morphological endings to use; the best syntactic structures to use; and problems about the language needed to sequence the story correctly. These problems arise as the students try to “make meaning”, that is, as they construct and write out the story, as they understand it. And as they encounter these linguistic problems, they focus on linguistic form – the form that is needed to express the meaning in the way they want to convey it.

Further reading:

  • Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Swain, M. 1999. Integrating language and content teaching through collaborative tasks. In C.Ward and W.Renandya (Eds), Language Teaching: New Insights for the Teacher. Singapore: RELC