Traditional Language Instruction: Why it Doesn’t Work


Do grammar instruction, corrections and role playing help us learn languages? I guess it does but only to a very limited degree. Here is an interesting excerpt from a discussion on a recent Internet forum.

“To me, the research appears to indicate that explicit form focused instruction (EFFI) and corrective feedback (CF) as they are commonly practiced don’t have a particularly significant effect on learners’ underlying linguistic systems (See John Truscott’s criticisms of corrective feedback for example).”

It is worth reading this sentence a few times, in order to really understand it. “Form focused” instruction means grammar instruction. “Corrective feedback” means correcting learners’ mistakes. Research indicates that these two mainstays of language instruction don’t have much impact. A good example of this is the “s” in the third person singular, present tense, in English. We say “he goes”, “he works”, “he lives” etc.. This is taught very early, yet most English learners continue to struggle with this simple rule, even after years of studying the language.

I have three Romanian tutors with whom I talk via Skype. Two are women, neither of whom were trained as teachers. They are happy just to converse with me and send me a report with a list of phrases containing the mistakes I made during the conversation. This is enjoyable and works well.

Today I started with a new tutor since I want to step up the pace of my conversations. I will be in Romania in a couple of weeks. This man is a trained teacher of Romanian, and an editor of educational books and magazines in Romania. At first he insisted on correcting everything I said. Then he told me that I should only use very simple short sentences for the first few weeks.  To top it all off, he proposed that we choose a theme to talk about. Rather than just converse on subjects of interest, he suggested we pretend that I am in a store. We could then talk about the items that could be found in the store, sort of like role-playing I guess.

I told him that I was not interested in this traditional approach to language learning, with corrections, and artificial dialogues. I just wanted to have a natural conversation. I don’t want him to speak English. I don’t want him to correct me while I speak. Both of these activities interrupt the flow of our conversation.

I do want a thorough list of the phrases that I use incorrectly. I import this list into LingQ and save the words and phrases to my personal database at LingQ. In this way I take advantage of speaking in Romania with a native speaker, and then later can take my time reviewing my mistakes or the vocabulary that I need to learn. The whole process is enjoyable and I look forward to my next lesson.

When I hire my teachers I can tell them what I want. I would not want to sit in language classroom where I am at the mercy of the teacher.


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7 comments on “Traditional Language Instruction: Why it Doesn’t Work


I totally agree. Traditional approach to language learning is not the best one for some students. It may work for those who are learning a language in order to pass an exam for istance or the ones who are not genuinely interested in acquiring certain tongue. I don’t like when teachers impose their methods either. That is why I learn grammar and vocabulary on my own, and I attend conversations from time to time. So far it works for me 🙂

Ben Henschke

The question of corrective feedback is an interesting one. It can sap a learner’s confidence, especially when the tutor insists on stopping the conversation, as yours did.

I find that a small list of corrections given to the learner after the conversation is useful though. The learner can take note of some mistakes while still being able to speak freely during the conversation. Even if they don’t import and revise their mistakes as you do, a slight nudge in the right direction can help. I use this approach in my tutoring, including at LingQ.

Of course the most important role of a tutor is to be flexible. That way, they can meet the learner’s needs and preferences rather than their own.


I believe your experience is not strictly related to the traditional method that the trained teacher was using. He’s probably just not a very good teacher for face to face lessons. Every student has different needs and abilities, the teacher has to focus on that every single time. I teach myself Romanian and French and I had a few times face to face courses. In these cases all you do has to properly fit the student. Sometimes this could mean using traditional methods too. I see the situation like this: the student is the client, the teacher is a tailor. The resulted tailor made clothing has the suit the client size and taste. And some clients might want a traditional suit. 🙂

Nikos Malandrakis

I totally agree with all of you.I am a teacher too and although I have been teaching for a lot of years, I have never stopped adapting my lesson according to my students needs and priorities.Anyway,a good teacher should be flexible!


Steve, your tutors are able to give you feedback after your conversations. Just curious, if they are not stopping to correct you mid conversation, how do they keep track of your mistakes? Do they tape the conversation and go back over it? I want to be able to do this with my students.

Our conversations are via skype. LingQ tutors simply type out the more obvious mistakes, and usually include them in phrases. When I tutor English I sent this report immediately after our discussion. This is imported by the learner and the key words and phrases are saved for future review.

This is infinitely preferrable to being interrupted, at least in my experience. This way the learner has the impression that what he or she is trying to say is of significance, in other words that the conversation is meaningful.

I just finished with my one Romanian tutor who instisted on correcting me in every sentence. I got quite angry with him and he finally acquiesced. In the end we had an intersting conversation about recent political history in Romania.

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