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Accelerated learning

February 06, 2007

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel - Socrates

Hello again,

Second language learning is different from other forms of learning in that it requires us to think in the target language. If you learn curriculum subjects such as history or mathematics, or if you learn practical skills...

...such as driving or cooking, the process of learning is conducted in your native tongue. When we learn a second language, however, we have at some point to leave the safety of the mother tongue and stride into our thoughts, even our dreams with the new language. It seems to me that when sufficient confidence in the new language is acquired, it occupies a parallel track in the brain with the mother tongue. This, I believe is why translation is a different activity from speaking a foreign language. To give you an example, when I was living in France, French friends would sometimes ask me the meaning of French words in English. Mostly this was not a problem but sometimes it required a real effort to get back to English and figure out what word or phrase was the equivalent to the French. Let me give you an example. Once I attended an interview with a company training manager. We were talking in French but the manager liked to display his English too. He asked me the question: Vous disposez d’une voiture? He needed to know if I had access to a car because the company had branches around the region. Then he said: how do you say that in English? I found myself casting about for an adequate translation. The switch from one language to another is a curious one.

Well, this is a long preamble to tale. But I wanted to underline the need to understand how learners of ESL may have various obstacles and blocks that are unique to language learning. It is an area in which you can feel demotivated if progress is slow, and your self-esteem can suffer if you fail to express yourself adequately. Accelerated learning involves a ‘whole-person’ approach that helps the learning process and make students more agile and confident.

First the learning environment needs to be one in which it is safe to experiment, to make mistakes and to ask for assistance. It is an environment in which everybody respects and trusts each other. For teachers this means knowing how to give constructive rather than destructive feedback. Sarcasm, carrot-and-stick approaches, scathing criticism are all out of place.

Then we need to look at various learning strategies that help students build a sense of achievement. Take learning vocabulary as an example. It is a monumental task but certain memory techniques can be taught to help learners. First, think of the technique of association. First-letter association is a simple one to handle. Can you remember the names of the Great Lakes? It’s so easy to miss one out. Use the first-letter association acronym, HOMES and you will have instant recall: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. So, if you want to teach students the names of colours, first associate the colours with the rainbow, teach them the names, then give them the acronym, ROYGBIV: red, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Well, there are many memory techniques to explore but it’s worth mentioning chunking here. This was first suggested in the 1950s by a Harvard psychologist, George A. Miller. He published an article,The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two in which he concluded that the short-term memory could cope with between five and nine items. This would suggest that teachers should limit new items to between five and seven per lesson to enable learners to commit them to memory.

Another aspect of accelerated learning is concerned with ‘brain breaks’. It appears that structured physical movement can aid learning. It is all too easy to have a class remain seated for the whole lesson. Try planning in physical exercise breaks between learning activities. You could have students do simple stretching exercises, or get them to form a circle, hold hands and move around in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions using different steps.

Of course, accelerated learning as an educational philosophy is more complex than I can outline here but if we think that the traditional classroom engages only about 20% of our learning capacity, then it makes sense to look for ways of stimulating learners to make better use of their potential. If you Google ‘accelerated learning’ you will find a lot of hints and suggestions for making your school more learner friendly.

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  1. Murdo MacLeod Says:

    Hello Brenda et al, I am an ESOL teacher working in Poland for my first year and recently read that giving your students English names helps them to think in English. I have two teenage groups who I was constantly discouraging them from returning to their native Polish and would have to do so 6 or 7 times during their 90-minute lesson. So I tried this 'theory' and it worked a lot better than I'd expected. The first group all spoke English throughout the lesson and I only had to caution the second group twice. This is something I will definitely be doing again.
    Regards, Murdo.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello Murdo,

    Good to hear that this works well for your students. Perhaps by assuming their English identity they lose some of their inhibitions and really feel the language is theirs.

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