The Four Strands of Language Learning is a framework designed by Paul Nation. It involves a balanced lesson or curriculum consisting of four main areas, which include meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning and fluency development in roughly equal amounts (Nation & Newton, 2009). The promotion of these strands involves interaction and use of language as a means of learning, as opposed to only study and rote memorisation. Although vocabulary and grammar are of course important, the active use of language and creation of purpose driven opportunities is the primary focus.
Meaning-focused input primarily involves reading and listening, and as the name suggest it is not about fixing grammar or choosing the appropriate words for the gap in the text. Rather, the point is for students to comprehend as much as possible from an extensive level of input. Increased input will lead to more familiarity and higher levels of retention.
Imagine you are reading about an unfamiliar topic (eg astrophysics) in your native language on Wikipedia. There will be words that you may not know, but you are trying to first get a general feel for the topic before delving into the highly specialized areas. Once you have taken in enough information that is not too much higher than your present level of understanding, feel comfortable with reading about the topic in a general sense and understand the context for the specialized words, you’ll be in a better place to understand the more specific words concepts. Understanding the context and the general idea will naturally lead to the meaning of some unknown words becoming apparent.
The other point is motivation. If you can get a general idea about astrophysics first, you’ll be more motivated to keep at it. If you are getting too bogged down in language or unfamiliar topics, you won’t enjoy it so much and may feel less inclined to put in the hours necessary for intensive input.
Practical ideas for meaning focused input:
- Extensive reading and listening activities that have some unfamiliar words, say 5-2% followed up with comprehension questions and discussion informed by the input. These can include a glossary
- Summarising speeches or discussions
- Book reports that focus on meaning of the text
- Reading wikipedia’s Simple English pages
- Research about familiar topics
- Skim reading
- Listening or reading for meaning and then following it up with meaning-focused output based activities.
Compare these activities:
- The teacher hands out a reading with missing words. The students have to read the text and fill in the blanks by thinking about grammar and context.
- The teacher gives out a reading and encourages the students to skim read it. After the time is up, students discuss the meaning of the text. Once they have finished discussing it, they refer back to the text to gain deeper understanding.
Meaning-focused output primarily involves speaking and writing. The goal is not to memorise a conversation or read out the correct grammar. Rather, the point is to use language practically to convey a specific message or point. This takes away the emphasis on isolated language and encourages students to use language for its primary purpose: communication.
Using language in a meaning-focused way forces students to use the language they already know to find their own ways to communicate their message. Through this, they can use trial and error to find what works and where they have gaps, become more motivated to continue and can start to feel they are using English, rather than just studying about it.
Noticing where they are having trouble with meaning will help learners to figure out which areas of language they need to study further.
Practical ideas for meaning focused output:
- Debate and discussion (for example: The New Heart Waiting List)
- Diary, blog, English chat groups and forums
- Writing articles or essays
Language focused learning involves the mechanics of language, such as grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. This is where a lot of the traditional language learning takes places, and it is important for understanding the workings of specific ways the language is constructed.
Practical ideas for language-focused learning:
- Traditional teaching techniques that involve introducing new vocabulary and grammar, reinforced with practice.
- Grammar explanation and drills
- Looking at mouth movements for pronunciation
- Pronunciation drills (for example: The Eraser Race)
- Looking at examples to discover rules and meaning
- Information gap activities in which students have students have different incomplete information and have to teach each other to fill in the gaps.
Fluency development activities are often neglected in classrooms. Perhaps this is because some teachers feel they need to actively teach the students new material, as opposed to practicing or teaching fluent use of language already acquired. The importance is put on using the four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) with greater fluency. The learners should benefit more from learning to use their current language well, as opposed to always striving to learn new language items.
Practical ideas for fluency development:
- Speed writing activities that involve writing as many words about a particular topic multiple times, gradually increasing the number of words written about the topic.
- Writing or talking about the same topic multiple times, sometimes with decreasing time limits.
- Retelling a story
- Listening to or reading a text multiple times.
- Practicing and performing roleplays
- Recording a speech or dialogue, listening back to it and finding ways to improve comprehensibility, speed, linking, pronunciation etc. Repeating this process and then comparing the first recording to the subsequent ones helps create awareness of areas to work on. Students can then listen to each others recordings and help each other to notice areas for improvement.
- Calling students from another class on the phone and asking questions.
- Speed interviews
The four strands outlined above have a strong focus on relating language to knowledge. By applying strategies that involve an emphasis on meaning, we are moving away from looking at language in isolation, and moving towards language for communication. In favour of learner strategies O’Malley, J. M., and Chamot, A. U. said that “Mentally active learners are better learners. Students who organize new information and consciously relate it to existing knowledge should have more cognitive linkages to assist comprehension and recall than do students who approach each task as something to be memorized by rote learning” (1990, pp. 196).
Nation, I. S. P & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. UK: Routledge.
O’Malley, J. M., and Chamot, A. U. (1990). Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition in Cambridge Applied Linguistics series. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.