Developing Teachers.com
A web site for the developing language teacher

A brain-based approach to teaching
English as a second language
by Tanju Deveci
- 3

I have pointed out that the brain seeks meaningful patterns and resists meaningless. We tend to connect and interpret new experiences through ones with which we are already familiar. Therefore, we must design activities where our learners directly and interactively experience things, which will let them construct new knowledge. And the motivation for this can only come from a deep sense of personal need. So we need to provide opportunities where making meaning is prompted by some problem, question, or disagreement that involves personal ownership of the issue. Tomlinson (1999) points out that when the thing to learn has deep and personal meaning, and when it is life shaping and relevant, the brain responds to it differently, and learning becomes more effective.

Also, when the brain's natural tendency to construct meaning from patterns is used in second language teaching, classroom learning can become more like learning in real-life situations.

I propose that English as a second language can be taught best in immersion programs where meaning is embedded in contexts taking into consideration all twelve learning principles of Caine & Caine (1994).

Therefore, we need to have closer look at what is meant by contextual learning and immersion, which include meaningful learning experiences for learners.

Contextual learning will occur only when students process new information or knowledge in such a way that it makes sense to them in their own frames of reference (their own inner worlds of memory, experience, and response). This approach to learning and teaching assumes that the mind naturally seeks meaning in context-that is, in relation to the person's current environment-and that it does so by searching for relationships that make sense and appear useful. Contextual learning is meaningful to learners, and this requires learners to analyse and process language more deeply. This aids their contextual/episodic memory, which is activated by direct association with events, circumstances, or location. Episodic memory can last for years with moderate review and has unlimited storage capacity. Our brain sorts and stores information based upon whether it is heavily embedded in context or in content.

Connecting content with context is an important part of bringing meaning to the learning process. For that connection to take place, a variety of teaching approached may be used. As a result of recent brain research and development, we have learnt how people learn. The following teaching approaches include context as a critical component:

• problem-based learning
• collaborative/cooperative learning
• project-based learning
• service learning
• work-based learning

We must be very careful how we go about using these approaches. The critical thing is that they should be used at the students' developmentally-appropriate level of learning, that the diversity of students should be considered, that the environment should be established to support self-regulated learning, that multiple intelligences should be considered, and that appropriate authentic assessment should be included.

Teachers' role in contextual teaching differs from the roles of those in teacher-fronted classes. They are facilitators rather than plain teachers. They continuously draw on their students' prior knowledge and experience when building up their learning environment. Since they are not the ones transmitting knowledge all the time, they engage their learners actively in their learning.

I argue that the most effective language acquisition can be achieved in immersion programs because of the fact immersion programs provide both meaning and context, which are necessary elements for the brain to take up a second language.

Early immersion students enter into the process of learning a second language at a time when it does not compete with other interests, as it is an integral part of their normal school activity. Older students, on the other hand, quickly recognize that learning a second language involves considerable time, dedication and effort, consequently preferring to spend their time and energy elsewhere. In other words, older students excel in their initial rate of second language achievement because they have a greater ability to consciously learn grammar rules while younger students excel in long-term second language achievement. However, both children and adults go through a hard time when they attempt to acquire a second language in schools.

I have been to many schools where English is only used in the classroom and the students' native language is reserved for use during informal social interactions or in group/pair work activities. I suspect that this is because the students are generally not taught the formulaic language, which would allow them to communicate in social situations in the second language. Speaking the target language all the time does not mean students are following an immersion program, and actually I believe that we cannot disregard our learners' native tongue (L1) totally.

Therefore, let me start by describing what I mean by language immersion. In language immersion, the usual curricular activities are run in English. That is, English becomes the medium of instruction as well as the object of instruction. Our curriculum should be organized around themes, which arouse our students' interest. Caine & Caine (1994) state that appropriate themes invoke emotions, provide a personal challenge, and stir imagination. All these elements will contribute to the meaningfulness of our teaching.

To page 4 of 5

Print-friendly article

Back to the articles index

Back to the top


Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page


Copyright 2000-2016© Developing Teachers.com