There have been a lot of different theories on how to best teach language. For a long time the most popular method was a grammar/translation method (students would study important texts in the target language and work on translating them) then the audio/lingual method (listen and repeat) most recently it has been the communicative method with skill building (you study how to put a sentence into the past tense, then you practice it using a simulated real world situation). Now many language teachers are leaning towards a method called "Comprehensible Input" developed by Stephen Krashen.
Stephen Krashen is one of the leading researcher of language acquisition - studying how people acquire language (I got to meet him at a conference in Cincinnati this summer – it was incredible!!!). He has spent his life researching how the brain acquires language. Even 40 years later his hypothesis have not been disproven. Here are three central hypothesis:
- The Comprehension Hypothesis: Understanding comprehensible messages (in spoken or written form) is the cause of language acquisition.
- The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis: Conscious learning about a language (memorizing vocabulary and grammar) is a separate process in the brain from unconsciously acquiring a language. The part of your brain that can spontaneously produce language is not the same part that stores the rules and grammar you memorized. What you memorize can, at best, help with error correction. Acquisition of the language leads to students’ being able to effortlessly use the language to convey personal meaning without consciously thinking about it, like they do in their first language. Learning about the language leads to students’ being able to use the conscious mind to edit for accuracy, select the proper ending on a verb, memorize a conjugation, or learn a list of vocabulary words. This is “learned competence”. Learned competence does not build acquired competence. The processes of developing learned and acquired competence are two separate processes in the brain.
- The Input Hypothesis: The ingredient for language acquisition is comprehensible input. Comprehensible input consists of contextualized messages – spoken or written – that students can understand. Students need only understand the meaning of the messages, not each and every word in the messages. Students forget that they are listening to or reading another language, because they are caught up in the meaning of the messages. They are focused on learning about a topic, or seeing where the plotline of the story leads, or they are focused on having a conversation about something interesting, perhaps learning something about their classmates or playing a game.
In order to acquire a language, your brain needs to receive lots of comprehensible input (messages it can understand). Conscious studying of grammar and vocabulary does not speed up acquisition (it actually slows down the process and wastes time that could have been used giving more comprehensible input). The most effective form of comprehensible input is reading or listening to stories.
Link to Dr. Stephen Krashen's research articles:
Link to Dr. Beniko Mason's paper on Sustained Silent Reading and TOEIC scores: