The balance between teaching English and teaching the learning of English

The topic of acquiring language has always been of great interest to me. The arrival of my 16 month old son to my life has made this an even more fascinating topic, that I’ m sure will feature at the centre of some future blog posts. Last week while having a coffee (and attempting to appear engrossed in my own book) I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two people speaking English. Neither were native speakers but both were absolutely proficient in their English use. On discussing the process of learning second, third and fourth languages, one of them said, “the third language was very easy to learn, as I knew what to look for, what to focus on.” This comment really struck a chord with me. While a great deal of planning goes into curriculum design, topic selection and language components to teach, are we, as teachers, avoiding a crucial component of teaching: the teaching of how to learn language. Are we spending too long on teaching English and not enough time on teaching strategies to learn language?

For many Spaniards that I have taught in company over the years, the time spent in English class may contribute to almost 90% of their weekly contact with English speakers. Combined with the general low attendance levels that seems to plague classrooms and the lack of any attempt to complete any assigned homework due to home commitments, the ESL teacher is catapulted to a position of higher importance. Should we be using the precious contact time our students have with English to highlight learning strategies, rather than simply delivering classes sculpted around lexical or grammatical objectives?

The answer is most definitely yes. Our students must be made aware of the fact that the onus is on them. According to Weinstein and Mayer (1986, p.315), learning strategies can be defined as “behaviours and thoughts that a learner engages in during learning, intended to influence the learner’s encoding process” While a coherent definition, are our students even conscious of their own behaviours and thoughts during their learning process?

Throughout the years there has been much research about effective strategies to promote L2 acquisition. If we first consider lexicon, vocabulary is key in building language. Many teachers may use imagery and contextual examples to encourage self-discovery of a word. Scurletus (2009, n.p) states that imagery “can help students learn new words and can also aid in overall reading comprehension and retention.” While these are very effective teaching strategies, are students aware that they can apply similar processes to vocab themselves to aid retention? When our students read outside the classroom and learn new words, do they too conjure up a mental image in their heads to aid retention? Possibly not.

A google search will quickly yield results regarding learning strategies that can be used by students (trust me, the list is endless!)  It is our job to make them aware that such strategies exist. It is our job as teachers to explicitly educate our students about the processes that aid retention and acquisition. It is our role to inform students of the way in which their acquisition is dependent on their own abilities to implement these learning strategies. By students becoming more aware of the power that they possess regarding their own linguistic development, the more effective the language learning process may become.


A little food for thought for a wet and windy Hump Day here in Madrid!


 Scurletis, G. (2009) Visualization and Vocabulary Retention, retrieved 10/05/2017, from

Weinstein, C., & Mayer, R. (1986). The teaching of learning strategies. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd Edition (pp. 315-327). New York: Macmillan.

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