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Unveiling the Power of "Less" in the Language Classroom: A Cognitive Approach to Teaching and Learning

In the dynamic landscape of modern language education, the quest for effective teaching methodologies that enhance students' ability to know and remember more has led us to explore unconventional approaches. One such approach gaining traction is the philosophy of "less is more" — a paradigm shift that challenges traditional notions of quantity over quality in language instruction. In this blog post, I delve into the cognitive principles behind the idea of knowing and remembering more by teaching less in the modern language classroom and their impact on outcomes.

I will be considering the following aspects:

Cognitive Load and the Struggle for Efficiency:

The Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) posits that our brain has limited capacity for processing information. When students are bombarded with excessive material or complex tasks, cognitive overload occurs, hindering effective learning. Embracing the concept of "less" acknowledges the importance of streamlining information to enhance comprehension, retention, and overall language acquisition.

This is especially highly relevant when learning and teaching another language in classroom (school) setting as the allocation of the teaching time is often limited and does not support the SLA research of ' little and often'.

In other words when learning to communicate in another language we need to have a regular exposure to it ideally, via all 4 modalities. Unfortunately, we - language teachers in U.K. classrooms, usually, do not have these conditions and we have to prioritise.

More on Cognitive Load Theory in Languages classroom, strategies and some concrete examples of how I manage CL in my own practice in my previous post here.

The Power of Focused Instruction:

  1. Prioritising Essential Concepts: By identifying and prioritising core language concepts, teachers can guide students through a focused learning journey. This involves selecting high-frequency vocabulary (especially, verbs), essential grammar rules, and cultural nuances that form the foundation of effective communication. There are many different approaches to teaching of L2, I believe the best one is the one that fits your own context and class. If one approach is not having an impact on learning, let's explore another one or indeed a combination of approaches (this is what works in my own context).

  2. Scaffolded Learning: Rather than overwhelming learners with an abundance of information, scaffolded learning breaks down language acquisition into manageable steps / chunks. Starting with the basics and gradually increasing complexity allows students to build a solid linguistic foundation while minimising cognitive load. More on how I use scaffolding in my own classroom inc. some examples of scaffolded tasks read my previous post on Scaffolding or differentiation here.

Example of scaffolded resources:

Spaced Practice and Retrieval Practice:

  1. Spaced Practice: Research suggests that spacing out learning sessions over time enhances memory retention. Implementing spaced practice involves revisiting and reinforcing previously learned material at intervals. This strategic approach ensures that students revisit essential concepts, reinforcing their understanding and preventing the forgetting curve.

  2. Retrieval Practice: Encouraging students to actively recall information through retrieval practice is a powerful tool. This involves frequent low-stakes testing, quizzes, and exercises that prompt students to retrieve and apply previously learned language elements. Retrieval practice not only reinforces knowledge but also strengthens long-term memory. More on retrieval practice as well as selection of different activities, see my previous post here.

Examples of RP tasks:

Quality Over Quantity:

  1. Focused Assignments: Rather than inundating students with an abundance of assignments, focusing on quality assignments fosters deeper understanding. Assignments that encourage critical thinking, application of language skills, and creativity contribute more significantly to students' linguistic growth. Although 'drills', at times, also have their place in learning, too often we see in the classroom practice that our students can chant and recite verb paradigms or grammar rules but fail to apply and transfer this knowledge when producing the language in context orally or in written form.

  2. Meaningful Feedback: Providing timely and targeted feedback on 1 or 2 key aspects of language proficiency is more impactful than overwhelming students with extensive corrections. Meaningful feedback helps students understand their strengths and areas for improvement, fostering a growth mindset. More on feedback and its application in my previous post here. Example of feedback sheet

adapted from template by Elena Díaz

In conclusion:

In the ever-evolving landscape of modern language education, the paradigm of knowing and remembering more by teaching less is grounded in cognitive principles that prioritise efficiency and depth of understanding.

By adopting focused instruction, spaced practice, retrieval practice as well as providing our learners with opportunities and environment for purposeful extensive practice, and emphasising quality over quantity, we can pave the way for a more effective and enjoyable language learning experience in the limited conditions that we often have.

Ultimately, it's not about the sheer volume of content covered but the depth to which students engage with and internalise the essential elements of a language, the exposure, and opportunities to practise (communicate) extensively and with purpose thus ensuring a solid foundation for future proficiency.

However, to become a proficient speaker in another language takes much more effort than just engaging with the language in the classroom. It requires an effort outside the classroom and opportunities to engage with the language using all media available. It is a long-term process which needs to be consistently and regularly nurtured like any skill we want to retain for life.


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