Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning in Elementary School

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is how I teach grammar rules to young English learners (ELs). Well, the truth is that I never taught out-of-context grammar to young students. I learned early in my career that research shows that grammar drills do not work with students of any age. According to Krashen (1988), a linguist specializing in theories of language acquisition and development, there is an important distinction between language acquisition and language learning.

He states,

Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill. Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.

Young ELs and Language Acquisition

When children are learning a second language, the process is almost identical to their first language acquisition. The goal of second language instruction should be oral communication, reading, vocabulary, and writing skills. Any mention of grammar rules should be within the context of the texts that are being read. The emphasis of language instruction for young ELs should be on the content of the communication and not on the form. Young students who are in the process of acquiring English need plenty of “on the job” practice.

ELs and Language Learning

I once walked into a 6th-grade general education classroom where my students were working with their English-speaking classmates on a “fill-in-the-blanks” grammar exercise. I noticed that all of them could correctly complete the exercise but their communication skills were poor. They were not able to apply those rules to their oral communications or their writing.

Language learning is not communicative. It is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. When ELs learn English, they gain conscious knowledge of the new language. They can fill in the blanks on a grammar page. They memorize grammar rules.

Research has shown, however, that knowing grammar rules does not necessarily result in good speaking or writing. A student who has memorized the rules of the language may be able to succeed on a standardized test of English language but may not be able to speak or write correctly. That’s why I don’t teach grammar to young English learners.

These experiences reinforced my belief that if we teach ELs to communicate, the grammar will take care of itself.

Reference

Krashen, S. D. (1988). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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9 Responses to Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning in Elementary School

  1. Flory MANDINA says:

    Thanks Judie for your post, however teachers should normally make language learning more communicative; since we learn a language primarly for communication.

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      In schools, language is used for communication but students also need to use language to learn academic information. So teachers need to do both.

  2. mariam says:

    Very interesting!!!! That’s my problem is the conversation and communication by writing and by speaking however my grades in the uni were very good in the English test.

  3. Jani Reddy says:

    Thanks Judie….. for your apt idea in teaching of grammar in a context. When the teacher provide exposure to oral language through story telling and Classroom routine would help the students acquiring language structures in the form of chunks. This process would help the students in acquiring language in a ESL context.

  4. Pablo Oñate says:

    Ms Judie Haynes
    I do agree in most of your point, however through my modest experience students who are not expose to grammar make mistakes in speaking and writing, it think, it is impportant to reinforece the grammar part to succeed in the language
    Thank you very much to let me give an opinion

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      The research in the field shows that learning grammar rules does not necessarily improve speaking and writing.

  5. Jani Reddy Pandiri says:

    Thank Judie….. for your apt idea in teaching of grammar in a context. When the teacher provide exposure to oral language through story telling and Classroom routine would help the students acquiring language structures in the form of chunks. This process would help the students in acquiring language in a ESL context.

  6. Reinaldo Rodriguez says:

    I really like your comment, but I like kind of disagree when you say that Language Learning is not communicative. If we see language as a mean of communication, and that is what it is; Language is primarily oral, so in my opinion it is communicative.

  7. Monica Starkweather says:

    I cringe sometimes in the general ed classroom with grammar instruction. Modeling with shared writing and mentor texts is great if done correctly.

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