Language Learning Contexts

[adapted from chapter 5 of Lightbown and Spada]

Traditionally, there were two main types of language learning setting: natural environments (on the street, at work, in the playground) which was the setting used by most people for millennia. But in the last 200 years especially, the instructional setting came to dominate language learning in schools. These two contexts can be seen as at two ends of a continuum.

Naturalistic——————————Instructional

Naturalistic Contexts (e.g. playground)

  • don’t learn one thing at a time: exposed to vocabulary and grammar as they arise
  • errors rarely corrected
  • exposed to the L2 for many hours a day either directly or indirectly
  • exposed to different people using the L2
  • lots of different uses of the L2: greetings, commands, information exchanges, arguments, instructions
  • focus on meaning
  • modified input is sometimes available, especially in one-to-one communication

Some argue that natural settings are more effective language learning environments than classrooms.

Instructional Contexts (e.g. EAL pullout classes)

  • language structures are presented and practised in isolation
  • frequent error correction
  • accuracy emphasised over meaning
  • interaction may be limited to teacher-student, with teacher dominant
  • discourse can be limited
  • pressure to speak
  • L1 might be used as well as the L2
  • small classes, so opportunities for interaction

Since the 1970s, an attempt to bridge this gap was made with the communicative approach.

Naturalistic—————Communicative—————Instructional

Communicative Contexts (e.g. mainstream classroom)

  • meaning prioritised over accuracy
  • focus on form
  • don’t learn things one at a time
  • input modified and made comprehensible
  • limited error correction, but may be feedback to clarify meaning
  • interaction and extent of talk can be dependent on class size, meaning small group work is vital

In reality, in a school all three contexts can exist and can be useful. Children talking in the playground, mainstream classrooms and EAL pullout all have their advantages to language learning.

[this would make a useful part of a presentation: could argue that schools need to use and be aware of all three]


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