Research for teaching ESL to adult learners

12 Dec

As I teach ESL (English as a Second Language)I rely on research to structure the content of my classes for adults. Here are some interesting articles:
There has been a longstanding interest among second and foreign language educators in research on language and the brain. Language learning is a natural phenomenon; it occurs even without intervention. By understanding how the brain learns naturally, language teachers may be better able to enhance their effectiveness in the classroom.

Brain Development: Can Teaching Make a Difference?

It has long been known that different regions of the brain have specialized functions. For example, the frontal lobes are involved in abstract reasoning and planning, while the posterior lobes are involved in vision. Until recently, it was believed that these specialized regions developed from a genetic blueprint that determined the structure and function of specific areas of the brain. That is, particular areas of the brain were designed for processing certain kinds of information from birth.

New evidence suggests that the brain is much more malleable than previously thought. Recent findings indicate that the specialized functions of specific regions of the brain are not fixed at birth but are shaped by experience and learning. To use a computer analogy, we now think that the young brain is like a computer with incredibly sophisticated hardwiring, but no software. The software of the brain, like the software of desktop computers, harnesses the exceptional processing capacity of the brain in the service of specialized functions, like vision, smell, and language. All individuals have to acquire or develop their own software in order to harness the processing power of the brain with which they are born.

A number of studies support this view. However, all were carried out on animals, because it is not possible to do such research with humans. Caution is called for when extrapolating these findings to humans. The studies discussed below reveal the incredible neural flexibility of the developing (and aging) brain. (See Chapter 5 in Elman et al., 1997).

Cortical tissue transplanted from its original location to a new location in the brain of young animals takes on the structure and function of its new location and not those of its original location. More specifically, neurons in the visual cortex of rodents have been transplanted to regions of the brain that are normally linked to bodily and sensory functions. The transplanted tissue comes to function like somato-sensory neurons and loses the capacity to process visual information (O’Leary & Stanfield, 1985). Likewise, if input from the eyes is rerouted from what would normally be the visual area of the brain to what is normally the auditory area of the brain, the area receiving the visual input develops the capacity to process visual and not auditory information; in other words, it is the input that determines the function of specific areas of the brain (Sur, Pallas, & Roe, 1990).

Greenenough, Black, and Wallace (1993) have shown enhanced synaptic growth in young and aging rats raised in complex environments, and Karni et al. (1995) have shown expansion of cortical involvement in performance of motor tasks following additional learningin other words, the cortical map can change even in adulthood in response to enriched environmental or learning experiences.

These findings may have implications for language educators: for one thing, that teaching and teachers can make a difference in brain development, and that they shouldn’t give up on older language learners.

Learning Through Connections

The understanding that the brain has areas of specialization has brought with it the tendency to teach in ways that reflect these specialized functions. For example, research concerning the specialized functions of the left and right hemispheres has led to left and right hemisphere teaching. Recent research suggests that such an approach does not reflect how the brain learns, nor how it functions once learning has occurred. To the contrary, “in most higher vertebrates (humans), brain systems interact together as a whole brain with the external world” (Elman et al., 1997, p. 340). Learning by the brain is about making connections within the brain and between the brain and the outside world.

What does this mean? Until recently, the idea that the neural basis for learning resided in connections between neurons remained speculation. Now, there is direct evidence that when learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, and less input is required to activate established connections over time. New evidence also indicates that learning creates connections between not only adjacent neurons but also between distant neurons, and that connections are made from simple circuits to complex ones and from complex circuits to simple ones.

For example, exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. Neural activity is diffuse, because the brain has not learned the acoustic patterns that distinguish one sound from another. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words. Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory (temporal) cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals. With further exposure, both the simple and complex circuits (corresponding to simple sounds and sequences of sounds) are activated at virtually the same time and more easily.

As connections are formed among adjacent neurons to form circuits, connections also begin to form with neurons in other regions of the brain that are associated with visual, tactile, and even olfactory information related to the sound of the word. These connections give the sound of the word meaning. Some of the brain sites for these other neurons are far from the neural circuits that correspond to the component sounds of the words; they include sites in other areas of the left hemisphere and even sites in the right hemisphere. The whole complex of interconnected neurons that are activated by the word is called a neural network.

The flow of neural activity is not unidirectional, from simple to complex; it also goes from complex to simple. For example, higher order neural circuits that are activated by contextual information associated with the word doggie can prime the lower order circuit associated with the sound doggie with the result that the word doggie can be retrieved with little direct input. Complex circuits can be activated at the same time as simple circuits, because the brain is receiving input from multiple external sourcesauditory, visual, spatial, motor. At the same time that the auditory circuit for the word doggie is activated, the visual circuit associated with the sight of a dog is also activated. Simultaneous activation of circuits in different areas of the brain is called parallel processing.

In early stages of learning, neural circuits are activated piecemeal, incompletely, and weakly. It is like getting a glimpse of a partially exposed and very blurry photo. With more experience, practice, and exposure, the picture becomes clearer and more detailed. As exposure is repeated, less input is needed to activate the entire network. With time, activation and recognition are relatively automatic, and the learner can direct her attention to other parts of the task. This also explains why learning takes time. Time is needed to establish new neural networks and connections between networks. This suggests that the neural mechanism for learning is essentially the same as the products of learninglearning is a process that establishes new connections among networks and the new skills or knowledge that are learned are neural circuits and networks.

What are the implications of these findings for teaching? First, effective teaching should include a focus on both parts and wholes. Instructional approaches that advocate teaching parts and not wholes or wholes and not parts are misguided, because the brain naturally links local neural activity to circuits that are related to different experiential domains. For example, in initial reading instruction, teaching phonics independently of the meaning of the words and their meaningful use is likely to be less effective than teaching both in parallel. Relating the mechanics of spelling to students’ meaningful use of written language to express themselves during diary writing, for example, provides important motivational incentives for learning to read and write. Second, and related to the preceding point, teaching (and learning) can proceed from the bottom up (simple to complex) and from the top down (complex to simple). Arguments for teaching simple skills in isolation assume that learners can only initially handle simple information and that the use of simple skills in more complex ways should proceed slowly and progressively. Brain research indicates that higher order brain centers that process complex, abstract information can activate and interact with lower order centers, as well as vice versa. For example, teaching students simple emotional expressions (vocabulary and idioms) can take place in the context of talking about different emotions and what situations elicit different emotions. Students’ vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them. Third, students need time and experience (“practice”) to consolidate new skills and knowledge to become fluent and articulated.

Are All Brains the Same?

Brains are not all the same. Take the early research on left-right hemispheric differences with respect to language. For most individuals, the left hemisphere is critically involved in most normal language functions. We know this because damage to the left hemisphere in adults leads to language impairment, which is often permanent. However, approximately 10% of normal right-handed individuals have a different pattern of lateralization; their right hemispheres or both hemispheres play a critical role in language (Banich, 1997, pp. 306-312). Males and females have somewhat different patterns of lateralization, with males being more left-hemisphere dominant than females. In the domain of reading, brain maps of students with dyslexia demonstrate that there are very large individual differences in the areas of the brain that underlie their difficulties (Bigler, 1992).

We also know that the areas of the brain that are important in specific domains of learning can change over the life span. There is increasing evidence of right hemisphere involvement in early language learning but less in later learning. Young children with lesions to their right hemisphere demonstrate delays in word comprehension and the use of symbolic and communicative gestures. These problems are not found in adults with right hemisphere lesions. Stiles and Thal have argued that there may be a link between the word comprehension problems of children and the right hemisphere, because “to understand the meaning of a new word, children have to integrate information from many different sources. These sources include acoustic input, but they also include visual information, tactile information, memories of the immediately preceding context, emotionsin short, a range of experiences that define the initial meaning of a word and refine that meaning over time” (Stiles and Thal, as cited in Elman et al., pp. 309-310). We know from a variety of sources that integration across domains of experience is a right-hemisphere function.

By implication, brain research confirms what we know from education research: that educators must make provisions for individual differences in learning styles by providing alternative grouping arrangements, instructional materials, time frames, and so on. Instruction for beginning language learners, in particular, should take into account their need for context-rich, meaningful environments. Individual differences in learning style may not be a simple matter of personal preference, but rather of individual differences in the hardwiring of the brain and, thus, beyond individual control.


Our understanding of the brain is continually evolving, thus our interpretation of the implications of findings from brain-based research for teaching and learning should also continually evolve. Brain research cannot prescribe what we should teach, how we should organize complex sequences of teaching, nor how we should work with students with special needs. Educators should not abandon their traditional sources of insight and guidance when it comes to planning effective instruction. They should continue to draw on and develop their own insights about learning based on their classroom experiences and classroom-based research to complement the insights that are emerging from advances in brain research. Fred Genesee, McGill University

———————————————————— What was highlighted in our previous article is the need for language to be meaningful at all times, and this is common ground for both children and adults alike. A quick look at present-day language courses clearly shows that this is not the case at all. You will see from the very first lesson, that the students have laundry lists of words to master and memorize, grammar, vocabulary, grammar and more vocabulary to make them feel they can even “touch” the language, those pretty “tangible” patterns they learn lesson after lesson that make them feel so secure and confident. The truth is, in the vast majority of cases, that whenever presented with a REAL situation in which they have to use the language, more often than not they dry up and are unable to utter two coherent phrases altogether. Are they to blame for their “failure?” Of course not. If what you are trained to do exclusively is grammar, repetitions and drills, you cannot be expected to produce something different, something communicative. The magic “click” that is supposed to take place in the students’ brains after constant hammering and repetition apparently never takes place or if it does, in the best of cases, it is in less than 2 per cent of the learners. What does this show? Clearly it is an indicator that must make us reflect on the importance of our teaching practices. Just because we as teachers learned things in a certain way does NOT mean that it is THE way. Pragmatic results clearly show that a grammar based approach to teaching a language is highly ineffective since language per definition entails communication. Until we come to understand this simple fact, we will keep seeing students dropping out of their language studies because “they are too hard for them, they are not cut out to learn a second language” and statements like these. And they may be true… They do NOT need to learn a second language. Then need to acquire it in all the senses of the word.  Julio Foppoli ————————————————————————————————- The Older Language Learner

by Mary Schleppegrell

Can older adults successfully learn foreign languages? Recent research is providing increasingly positive answers to this question. The research shows that:

  • there is no decline in the ability to learn as people get older;
  • except for minor considerations such as hearing and vision loss, the age of the adult learner is not a major factor in language acquisition;
  • the context in which adults learn is the major influence on their ability to acquire the new language.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, older adults can be good foreign language learners. The difficulties older adults often experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments in the learning environment, attention to affective factors, and use of effective teaching methods.


The greatest obstacle to older adult language learning is the doubt–in the minds of both learner and teacher–that older adults can learn a new language. Most people assume that “the younger the better” applies in language learning. However, many studies have shown that this is not true. Studies comparing the rate of second language acquisition in children and adults have shown that although children may have an advantage in achieving native-like fluency in the long run, adults actually learn languages more quickly than children in the early stages (Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, 1979). These studies indicate that attaining a working ability to communicate in a new language may actually be easier and more rapid for the adult than for the child.

Studies on aging have demonstrated that learning ability does not decline with age. If older people remain healthy, their intellectual abilities and skills do not decline (Ostwald and Williams, 1981). Adults learn differently from children, but no age-related differences in learning ability have been demonstrated for adults of different ages.


The stereotype of the older adult as a poor language learner can be traced to two roots: a theory of the brain and how it matures, and classroom practices that discriminate against the older learner.

The “critical period” hypothesis that was put forth in the 1960’s was based on then-current theories of brain development, and argued that the brain lost “cerebral plasticity” after puberty, making second language acquisition more difficult as an adult than as a child (Lenneberg, 1967).

More recent research in neurology has demonstrated that, while language learning is different in childhood and adulthood because of developmental differences in the brain, “in important respects adults have superior language learning capabilities” (Walsh and Diller, 1978). The advantage for adults is that the neural cells responsible for higher-order linguistic processes such as understanding semantic relations and grammatical sensitivity develop with age. Especially in the areas of vocabulary and language structure, adults are actually better language learners than children. Older learners have more highly developed cognitive systems, are able to make higher order associations and generalizations, and can integrate new language input with their already substantial learning experience. They also rely on long-term memory rather than the short-term memory function used by children and younger learners for rote learning.


Health is an important factor in all learning, and many chronic diseases can affect the ability of the elderly to learn. Hearing loss affects many people as they age and can affect a person’s ability to understand speech, especially in the presence of background noise. Visual acuity also decreases with age. (Hearing and vision problems are not restricted exclusively to the older learner, however.) It is important that the classroom environment compensate for visual or auditory impairments by combining audio input with visual presentation of new material, good lighting, and elimination of outside noise (Joiner, 1981).


Certain language teaching methods may be inappropriate for older adults. For example, some methods rely primarily on good auditory discrimination for learning. Since hearing often declines with age, this type of technique puts the older learner at a disadvantage.

Exercises such as oral drills and memorization, which rely on short-term memory, also discriminate against the adult learner. The adult learns best not by rote, but by integrating new concepts and material into already existing cognitive structures.

Speed is also a factor that works against the older student, so fast-paced drills and competitive exercises and activities may not be successful with the older learner.


Three ways in which teachers can make modifications in their programs to encourage the older adult language learner include eliminating affective barriers, making the material relevant and motivating, and encouraging the use of adult learning strategies.

Affective factors such as motivation and self-confidence are very important in language learning. Many older learners fear failure more than their younger counterparts, maybe because they accept the stereotype of the older person as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language. When such learners are faced with a stressful, fast-paced learning situation, fear of failure only increases. The older person may also exhibit greater hesitancy in learning. Thus, teachers must be able to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence in the learner.

Class activities which include large amounts of oral repetition, extensive pronunciation correction, or an expectation of error-free speech will also inhibit the older learner’s active participation. On the other hand, providing opportunities for learners to work together, focusing on understanding rather than producing language, and reducing the focus on error correction can build learners’ self-confidence and promote language learning. Teachers should emphasize the positive–focus on the good progress learners are making and provide opportunities for them to be successful. This success can then be reinforced with more of the same.

Older adults studying a foreign language are usually learning it for a specific purpose: to be more effective professionally, to be able to survive in an anticipated foreign situation, or for other instrumental reasons. They are not willing to tolerate boring or irrelevant content, or lessons that stress the learning of grammar rules out of context. Adult learners need materials designed to present structures and vocabulary that will be of immediate use to them, in a context which reflects the situations and functions they will encounter when using the new language. Materials and activities that do not incorporate real life experiences will succeed with few older learners.

Older adults have already developed learning strategies that have served them well in other contexts. They can use these strategies to their advantage in language learning, too. Teachers should be flexible enough to allow different approaches to the learning task inside the classroom. For example, some teachers ask students not to write during the first language lessons. This can be very frustrating to those who know that they learn best through a visual channel.

Older adults with little formal education may also need to be introduced to strategies for organizing information. Many strategies used by learners have been identified; these can be incorporated into language training programs to provide a full range of possibilities for the adult learner (Oxford-Carpenter, 1985).


An approach which stresses the development of the receptive skills (particularly listening) before the productive skills may have much to offer the older learner (Postovsky, 1974; Winitz, 1981; J. Gary and N. Gary, 1981). According to this research, effective adult language training programs are those that use materials that provide an interesting and comprehensible message, delay speaking practice and emphasize the development of listening comprehension, tolerate speech errors in the classroom, and include aspects of culture and non-verbal language use in the instructional program. This creates a classroom atmosphere which supports the learner and builds confidence.

Teaching older adults should be a pleasurable experience. Their self-directedness, life experiences, independence as learners, and motivation to learn provide them with advantages in language learning. A program that meets the needs of the adult learner will lead to rapid language acquisition by this group.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: