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Research with implications for Language Teaching

The piece of research below has implications for language teaching. I would suggest that language learning falls into the category of an area where abstract thought about the concepts is very important - and it would be interesting to do a controlled trial of students new to Latin, one given simple texts, the other thrown in at the deep end with a hard text, and subsequently given the simple texts and rules - but only after being exposed to higher level Latin texts or conversation initially.

Is there any language textbook that does this - I think all of the Ollendorff-type books do, but I've not seen any modern language textbooks that use such a methodology as is hinted at in this piece of research?

ScienceDaily (Dec. 1, 2008) — t’s a question that confronts parents and teachers everywhere- what is the best method of teaching kids new skills? Is it better for children to learn gradually, starting with easy examples and slowly progressing to more challenging problems?

Or is it more effective to just dive-in head first with difficult problems, and then move on to easier examples? Although conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to learn a difficult skill is to progress from easier problems to more difficult ones, research examining this issue has resulted in mixed outcomes.
University of California, Santa Barbara psychologists Brain J. Spiering and F. Gregory Ashby wanted to pinpoint the best strategies for learning new information. In their study, a group of volunteers were taught a new task in which they had to categorize items. The volunteers were trained to complete the task by one of three methods—starting with easy problems, starting with harder problems then moving on to easier examples or being shown examples in random order.
The results, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, showed that the effects of the different training methods depended on the type of categories that the participants were learning. When the categories could be easily described (i.e. was the line horizontal or vertical?), all three of the training procedures were equally effective. However, when the categories could not be described easily, starting with the harder problems then moving to easier ones produced the best results.
The volunteers in the easy-to-hard group were able to come up with simple rules and category descriptions which worked for the easy problems, but were not applicable to more complicated problems. As a result, these participants ended up doing poorly on the task because they were unable to think abstractly to solve the problem. On the other hand, the participants who began with harder problems very quickly stopped trying to come up ways to describe the categories and thought about the problems in a more abstract way; this strategy helped them to perform well throughout the task.
These findings have important implications for teachers and educators and suggest that materials should be presented to students in a specific order, depending on what is being taught.
Adapted from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science.
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Association for Psychological Science (2008, December 1). Using Challenging Concepts To Learn Promotes Understanding Of New Material. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 2, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/12/081201105702.htm

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Comment by M.B. Long on December 2, 2008 at 10:17am
I wonder whether this has to do with always having a 'higher-level' point of reference for new rules or examples after the fact. That is, if I have seen a very difficult passage in Latin and only later learn about subjects, objects, and transitive verbs, I think "Ah, I remember seeing that in this place, now I understand what that was." Whereas if a day-one student is given the sentence 'manus manum lavat' and taught about the subject, object, and verb, the thinking then stops. There are no further references, information, and therefore no further interest.
Comment by Molendinarius on December 7, 2008 at 8:40am
I think a lot has to do with the mirror neurons in the brain, which seem to be heavily involved in language learning - which is why audio input is vitally important.

I also have speculated (no pun intended?) that a learner who looks at himself or herself in the mirror while speaking the words of the new language, will progress faster. It would be an interesting exercise/experiment, to take two groups, and assign them a learning task, one group with mirrors, the other without, and see which group progresses fastest. I suspect, as a gut intuition, that the group who are looking at themselves in the mirror while they speak, will learn the fastest.


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