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What every language learner and teacher should know: the Four Strands

This all means that we should spend 75% of our time using a language. Most language courses spend way too much time "about" a language.

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What learning opportunities should there by in your own language learning program?

There are 4 main conditions that are very good for language learning. These conditions should be balanced throughout a course through a variety of activities. These four different categories of activities should be planned evenly throughout a course. Think of a braid with four strings. The strings are the 4 Strands. The braid itself is a language course.  

The Four Strands are:

  • Meaning Focused Input
  • Meaning Focused Output
  • Language Focused Learning
  • Fluency Development

Meaning Focused Input: Learn from lots of listening and reading

The most important kind of activity for second language acquisition comes in the form of comprehensible input. According to Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, we acquire language when we understand it. The reading or listening that we do should be just a bit more difficult than our current level. It turns out that we learn grammar and vocabulary implicitly through understanding written and spoken messages. For this to work best, we should know 98% of the vocabulary and get lots of it. This kind of comprehensible input is called Meaning Focused Input.

Meaning Focused Input is the most important of the Four Strands.

Meaning Focused Output: Learn from communicating in speaking and writing

Not only do we have an Input Hypothesis, but we’ve also got an Output Hypothesis. This was first described by Merril Swain. When we push ourselves to communicate in new ways we develop ideas for how to express our meaning, then we test it out, then we get feedback: did the other person understand me? We have to make decisions about grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation when we speak and write. This is likely not the only requirement for language acquisition, but it is likely a very important part. When you engage in a speaking activity for Meaning Focused Output you get plenty of Meaning Focused Input from your partner.

In the Four Strands, this kind of learning is called Meaning Focused Output.

Fluency Development: Getting better and faster at using what you know

So far we’ve talked about receiving messages with reading and listening and communicating messages with speaking and writing. We learn language by decoding input and by stretching our abilities with output. Fluency Development is about using what we know and going faster. This is true with any of the four skills. Fluency with speaking is practiced by practicing very easy talks or dialogues multiple times and pushing for speed. In a classroom that would mean changing partners and giving the same talk again and again. With reading it would be rereading a book we’ve read or reading something really easy for speed. To practice fluency, just remember, you’ve got to do something easy, repeat it, and push for speed.

Language Focused Learning: deliberate learning of language features

This Strand is about deliberately trying to learn language features like grammar (rules), vocabulary, and pronunciation. When people think about language learning, they usually think about this. There are various activities you can do in this Strand. One of the best ones is learning vocabulary through word cards.

You’ll notice that Language Focused Learning is the only strand that is not message-focused. That means we should spend 75% of our time using the language. Most language courses spend way too much time about a language in the Language Focused Learning Strand.

 What do you do next?

Find out more about the 4 Strands here at Sound Practice. I will be covering more in future posts. Following the principle of the 4 Strands is essential because it allows learning to happen and ensures we don’t teach too much (or study too much). The 4 Strands makes sure we don’t get in the way of learning by doing too much of one thing.

Further reading

Everything I know about the 4 Strands has come from reading the work of Paul Nation and putting his ideas into practice.

Paul Nation’s website has a lot of resources for language teachers that are free to download.

These books are excellent resources for getting started:

  • Nation, Paul. “What Should Every EFL Teacher Know?” Compass Publishing.
  • Nation, Paul. “What you need to know to learn a foreign language.” Available for download at Paul Nation’s Website
  • Nation, P. and Newton, J.   “Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking.” Routledge Publishing 2009.
  • Nation, P. and Newton, J.   “Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing.” Routledge Publishing 2009.

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