Models of Language Teaching and Learning


As a language teacher, you may be in one of these situations, or a combination of them:

  • You are a native speaker of the language you are teaching. You have experience teaching it in your country of origin, but limited knowledge of the teaching approaches commonly used in the United States.
  • You are a native speaker of the language you are teaching. You are a professional in a field other than education, and you have little or no training as a language teacher.
  • You are a nonnative speaker of the language you are teaching. You have studied the language, literature, and culture extensively and have some training as a teacher, but little experience in the classroom.
  • You are a native speaker of the language you are teaching. You have recently completed a degree or certification program in language teaching, and are just getting started in classroom teaching.

In addition, you may have limited contact with colleagues who teach the same language, and few or no published teaching materials. You may therefore have to develop lessons, teach, and assess student learning with little or no guidance to help you appreciate which methods work, how, and why.

In response, you may fall back on a traditional model for understanding language teaching and language learning.

Traditional model: Language learning is a product of transmission. The teacher transmits knowledge about the language. The learner is the recipient of the transmission.

The traditional model may be attractive to you for several reasons:

  • It is the method by which you were taught
  • It makes sense to you: The teacher should be the focus of the classroom, since the teacher knows the language and the students do not
  • It requires fairly simple preparation: All you need to do is develop and present a specific point about the language’s grammar forms and structures (or present the material outlined in the appropriate chapter of the textbook) and distribute related exercises
  • It requires relatively little thought about students or student activities: All students listen to your presentation or do an assigned listening or reading task, then complete related exercises individually

However, the language teaching profession in the United States has come to recognize that this traditional model has two serious drawbacks:

  • It views the teacher as active and the student as fundamentally passive. The teacher is responsible for transmitting all of the information to the students. The teacher talks; the students listen and absorb (or take a nap). By not seeking to engage all students actively, it involves only a minority of students in actual language learning.
  • It views language as a subject to be studied and language learning as the gradual mastery of the language’s grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. It gives students knowledge about the language, but does not necessarily enable them to use it in real-life situations for purposes that interest them.

To address these drawbacks, language teaching professionals in the United States and many other countries have adopted a different model of teaching and learning.

Current model: Language learning is a process of discovery. The learner develops the ability to use the language for specific communication purposes. The teacher models language use and facilitates students’ development of language skills that can be applied in real-life situations.

In this model, both student and teacher are active participants who share responsibility for the student’s learning. Teacher and students work together to identify how students expect to use the language. The teacher models language use, and students then use the language themselves in activities that simulate—or are—real communication situations. The objective is the development of communicative competence [see Teaching Goals and Methods for more on communicative competence.]

Because the focus is on how language is used in real communication, in this model the teaching of grammar forms and structures is only one part of a larger whole that also includes cultural knowledge and ability to use the language to acquire information and participate in the communities where it is spoken.

Comparing the Two Models

The traditional model is often described as teacher centered and classroom oriented, while the current model may be described as learner centered and community (or real world) oriented. The differences between the traditional model and the current model are summarized in the following table.

Focus is on teacher Focus is on both students and teacher
Focus is on language forms and structures (what the teacher knows about the language) Focus is on language use in typical situations (how students will use the language)
Learning materials are made for the classroom Learning materials are authentic, drawn from real life
Teacher talks; students listen Teacher models; students interact with teacher and one another
Students work alone Students work in pairs, in groups, or alone depending on the purpose of the activity
Teacher monitors and corrects every student utterance Students talk without constant teacher monitoring; teacher provides feedback/correction when questions arise
Teacher answers students’ questions about language Students answer each other’s questions, using teacher as an information resource
Teacher chooses topics Students have some choice of topics
Teacher evaluates student learning Students evaluate their own learning; teacher also evaluates
Classroom is quiet Classroom is often noisy and busy

As a language teacher who is new to the current model, you may find it daunting in several ways.

  • It conflicts with tradition: Many cultures have longstanding traditions about how the language should be taught, especially to school children. These approaches are often teacher centered, and they often focus on literature rather than interpersonal communication.
  • It requires more preparation time: Teachers must consider students’ language learning goals, identify classroom activities that will help students develop the language skills they need to reach those goals, and find appropriate real-world materials to accompany the activities.
  • It is mysterious: It’s not clear what, exactly, a teacher does to make a classroom learner centered.
  • It feels like it isn’t going to work: When students first move into small groups, they may be slow to get started as they assess the assigned task and figure out group dynamics.
  • It feels chaotic: Once students start working in their groups, the classroom becomes noisy and the teacher must be comfortable with the idea that students may make mistakes that are not heard and corrected.
  • It sounds like a bad idea: The phrase “learner centered” makes it sound as though the teacher is not in control of the classroom.

The material presented in this website is designed to help you address these concerns. It will help you understand why learner-centered instruction is effective and discover ways of using it in your own classroom. It will also help you understand how to locate and use authentic materials effectively.

A set of techniques for employing learner-centered instruction appears in the section on Teaching Goals and Methods, and the learner-centered model underlies all of the guidance provided in the sections on teaching practice. In addition, throughout the site learner-centered instruction is presented as fundamental to the larger context of standards-based language teaching.

We hope that the material presented in this site will help you become a better language teacher. We believe that you will find that the current language teaching model, with its focus on language in use and the active, joint engagement of students and teacher, produces a dynamic classroom environment in which teaching and learning become rewarding and enjoyable for all.


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