May 15, 2020

Key knowledge- the building blocks of language learning success


Daniel. T .Willingham. ‘Factual knowledge precedes skill; It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge

One of the most common frustrations and challenges language learners face is struggling to remember content they have already covered; especially when they are required to apply such learning when speaking, listening, reading or writing. In fact, it is nigh on impossible to perform any of these four skills if the key knowledge is not there. What good is a perfect French accent if you can’t use question words to ask for information? What good is an understanding of random French foods if you are not able to express preferences? Why learn a long list of clothing items, only to be unable to say which one you would like to buy?

So how do we ensure we have the knowledge we really need to communicate effectively in a language? And what types of knowledge should be prioritised? Through 7 years of teaching, examining, and discussing these ‘threshold concepts’ with other teachers and subject leaders, I have come to the conclusion that the following ‘non-negotiable’ knowledge components must be prioritised and revisited regularly to ensure that students make good progress in languages; using opinions and justifications, using questions, using negatives, using verbs and tenses, using adjectives and adverbs, and using time phrases and connectives.

The fact remains, however, that simply touching on each of these areas of knowledge occasionally will not suffice. In order to ensure students retain this knowledge over time and are able to build on their prior knowledge, the principal of ‘spaced retrieval’ must be employed. This involves planning, in the long, short and medium term, to regularly revisit each aspect of the ‘key knowledge’, whether that is in the form of a starter activity, or a full lesson which intertwines the key knowledge in question with some topic specific content. The ‘over learning’ of this key knowledge will ensure that it becomes embedded in the long-term memory of our students, such that it can easily be called upon when necessary.

In order for our language learners to be successful we need to decide what we want them to remember, and then plan deliberately to ensure they can’t forget it!