The Importance of Building Skills in Language Learning

An important truth of language learning is that it requires mastery of a skill as much as acquisition of knowledge. In other words, it is not enough for students to know word meanings and structure rules; students need to be able to apply this knowledge quickly, even automatically, to express themselves smoothly, read competently, and comprehend spoken English rapidly. To build these skills, practice is necessary; study alone will not suffice.

Again, this point might seem obvious, but remember the unintended lessons that many approaches to language teaching leave students with. For many students, language learning has always been about learning grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary to perform well on tests. Many students have had little experience using English in actual conversation, and have not built the speed and automaticity that can only be developed through repeated practice. Naturally, students’ perceptions of the important parts of language learning are shaped by their experience in language classes, and it is not surprising if students are inclined to neglect practice in favor of study.

Language use has a heavy skill component, which demands that the user perform complex operations accurately and quickly, and this has some important implications for the ways in which students must learn:

  1. Language learners need a lot of practice. To learn to speak well, students need to spend a lot of time speaking; in order to learn to read quickly and effectively, they need to spend a lot of time reading, and so forth. Almost all teachers would assent to this principle in theory, but in many English classrooms, the teacher still talks most of the time. Sometimes this is because teachers feel they need to dominate in order to maintain control in class; sometimes it is because teachers feel that if they aren’t “teaching,” they aren’t really earning their pay. For whatever reasons, stepping off the podium and giving students a chance to speak (read, write, etc.) is more problematic than it may initially seem.
  2. Language learners need repeated practice. One important concept related to language learning is automaticity. The idea here is that many language skills require a student to do many different things at the same time; for example, speaking involves choosing words, applying grammar rules, and attending to pronunciation and intonation — all while trying to decide what to say. A speaker cannot consciously pay attention to all of these operations simultaneously, so some of them must be practiced often enough that they can be performed automatically. It takes repeated practice to learn to perform any skill smoothly and automatically, and language learning is no exception.

This point is important because students and teachers often unconsciously assume that their job is to cover the material in the book and ensure students complete any related exercises. Part of this unconscious assumption is that each point should only be covered one time and that, once the material is covered, students should know it. (Among students who have internalized this view of language learning, the protest that “We’ve done this already” is expected to effectively veto an activity whether or not they have really learned the skill in question.) The problem, of course, is that covering material in a textbook is often not enough to allow learners to build necessary skills, and you may need to repeat activities several times before students can use the new material automatically.

This article has been provided by Christian Lingua.

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