Traditional Foreign Language Teaching Loses Students

Structured input approach emphasizes listening, reading first.

Structured input approach emphasizes listening, reading first.

“I studied Spanish for four years, but I can’t speak a word of it.”

It’s a phrase all too common to university students who have attempted to master fluency in a foreign language, said Andrew Farley, associate professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech University. And that’s largely the fault of the way foreign language currently is taught.

Farley, author of “Structured Input: Grammar Instruction for the Acquisition-Oriented Classroom,” researches the psychology behind the best methods to teach foreign language. He said the old standard of teacher-fronted classes that focus the most time on explaining a foreign language’s rules and exceptions through generic examples don’t help students form the understanding they need to speak spontaneously.

Instead, his research found that a grammar point is best learned by reading it and listening to it in context first before attempting to use it. While observing by sight and sound, studies have found students can pick up the language better so that they can apply the language under real communicative circumstances. He calls this method structured input.

“Structured input is a very specialized approach to teaching grammar to language learners,” Farley said. “It is a way we can deliver language to the learner, have them do something with it and have them relate to each other on a personal level. In the last decade, the research has centered on what we can do to have the focus on the learners and not on the teachers. How can we function as architects and give tools to the students so they can build the activity through conversation.”

The “structured” part of the approach, Farley said, introduces listening and reading activities that take into account where many language learners have problems. For instance, language learners think that the first person or thing they see in a sentence must be the subject, but sometimes it is not. Learners also tend to overlook important grammar such as past or future tense, because they don’t need it to interpret the sentence correctly. Words such as yesterday and tomorrow can communicate tense, making the grammar unimportant to the learner. Farley’s suggests taking into account factors like these when structuring the input activities.

Once students get their “input” portion of the lesson through reading or listening to the grammar in context via online activities, they can then partake in production-oriented activities in class that require them to speak and communicate together using the new grammar. This personalizes the language, Farley said, because the students have to make decisions about using the language to express themselves.

“I’ve observed over 50 different foreign language teachers over the past 11 years at Notre Dame, at the University of Illinois, and at Texas Tech,” Farley said. “What I see is the very human temptation for teachers to look at themselves as the grammatical expert, to fill the blackboard with rules and exception to rules and examples. They take 20 to 40 minutes to explain to students and what do we find? We’re talking about language rather than talking in the language. The underlying assumption of this approach is if the teacher can give a perfect explanation, the students will acquire language. Some of my research shows there’s no effect for explanation. The activities and exposure alone to the language brings about a significant change.”

Almost all of the studies that compare structured input activities to the standard foreign language teaching drills have shown that structured input is more effective in teaching second language, he said.

For a copy of Farley’s book, “Structured Input: Grammar Instruction for the Acquisition-Oriented Classroom,” contact John Davis at (806) 742-2136 or john.w.davis@ttu.edu.

For more information on Andrew Farley, visit www7.tltc.ttu.edu/afarley.

CONTACT: Andrew Farley, associate professor of applied linguistics, Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures, College of Arts and Sciences, Texas Tech University, (806) 445-9739, (806) 742-3146 ext. 240 or andrew.farley@ttu.edu.