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Learning from listening and reading

Most students learn language from listening and reading. Pasifika students learn a great deal this way.

To succeed at school, Pasifika students need to learn from speaking and writing, as well as from explicit (clear and precise) teaching.

For students to learn new language more effectively through listening and reading, teachers should determine whether they understand well enough the learning materials.

How simply listening and reading contributes to language learning

Languages are different from other school curriculum areas because they can be learned without any direct teaching. All children learn their first languages this way. In the global context, most second languages are probably learned as a result of participating in a speech community, through the process known as language acquisition. This is when people acquire (learn or develop) language "naturally". 

The bilingual Pasifika learners in New Zealand schools are in a second-language environment for a large part of their time. Certainly, they will learn English from hearing and reading it, especially because they have strong practical reasons to do so.

In the same way, they will learn some, or a lot, of one or more Pasifika languages by hearing them. They may also learn from reading these languages, both within and outside of school.

Extending Pasifika language

The more opportunities schools can provide for their bilingual Pasifika students to listen and read in a Pasifika language, the more the students’ knowledge of their Pasifika languages will be extended.

Unlike schools, parents do not have direct access to the high-quality curriculum-related materials that are produced for schools in Pasifika languages. Thus, parents are not in a position to do exactly the same things schools can do or to have the same level of impact in this area.

Output, input, and interaction

Student output (the language learners say or write) and interaction (learners communicating with other people using the language they are learning) are needed you hear and read.

Understanding factors that affect comprehension

The English Language Learning Progressions (2007) outlines the stages involved in learning to read English as an additional language and some of the factors that affect comprehension.

One way you can judge whether your students are likely to understand the input of a particular text is by looking at the number of words in the text that they know the meaning of.

Paul Nation (2001) notes that:

  • learners need to know between 95 and 98 percent of the words they are reading in order to understand and read material easily
  • to read independently, without any difficulty, only two out of every 100 words can be words the readers do not understand well.

Get students to show what they know

The easiest approach follows.

Show your students a text. Ask them to underline or make a list of all the words they are not sure they understand.

If they are unsure of more than five words per 100, they will only be able to study from this text with support. They will be unable to read it independently, fluently, and easily, with enjoyment and good comprehension.

Consider scaffolding difficult input

Difficult input does not always need to be discarded or simplified. It may be suitable for instructional material used in a scaffolded way in the class.

In fact, evidence exists that students make better progress from:

  • texts that are elaborated rather than simplified
  • working with material in ways that allow them to interact and process the meaning at deeper levels.

While students are working on a topic or task and using associated language to discuss it with others, they are going over and over the same language in many different ways.

These processes of interconnecting and repetition are probably what result in language being learned permanently. 

When is an item (new word) permanently learned?

Much research has been carried out into how long it takes to learn a new word and its meaning.

A small proportion of words are permanently learned the first time they are encountered (perhaps four or five percent). The rest take up to 20 encounters before they are permanently learned.

Spacing introductions with new words

Learners’ introductions to new words can be spaced in a particular way to be most effective.

First day
On the first day, there should be several encounters, not just one.

Over the week
There should be several more encounters spread over the week.

In the following weeks and months
In the following two weeks, include a few encounters. Give some during the next month and after that, one or two in following months.

The benefits of regularity, recycling, and repetition

As you can see, it is likely to take half a year of regular encounters for all students to learn a particular set of words permanently. 

Because there is much to learn for each language item and because language items take many encounters to be permanently and fully learned, a great deal of recycling and repetition needs to be built into language learning.