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Why Meaningful Learning Is So Important?

In all those years as a TEFL trainer, I experienced countless novice teachers and seasoned ones during teaching practice.  When they came, they all had difficulties with the “Principle of Meaningful Context.”  When they left, they had become wonderful EFL teachers with the knowledge of how to excite their students in class.  Nothing can replace excellent teaching skills.  And those schools that hired our graduates were able to tell the difference.  Read on to learn a little bit about our work in training EFL teachers.

In English language (or any foreign language) teaching, our trainees learn that meaningful learning is imperative to a top-notch EFL class.  What is the difference between meaningful learning and “rote” learning?  Let me explain that by looking back in history.  Most of our parents learned a foreign language from a teacher who spoke the native language of the students in class.  Vocabulary was taught by translating and explaining how those words interact in a sentence.  Grammar was explained by giving the rules in the native language and by practicing a few unrelated examples.  The students read a small text and translate it into the native language.  We refer to this method as Grammar-Translation Method.  After years of language study, students left the school being unable to hold a conversation in the target language, due to “rote” learning.

Research in foreign language teaching has come a long way.  We have learned that our students can perform so much better if learning is meaningful.  Let me illustrate that with examples.

Rote Learning

Teacher: Today, we are going to learn the order of adjectives before the noun.  If you have several adjectives that precede the noun, you have to use them in the following sequence:

1.  opinion   2.  size   3. age    4. color , etc.

Put the following adjectives in the correct order before the noun.

1.  large, expensive, car   [students try]

2.  Persian, silk, expensive, carpet  [students try]

Teacher: Do the following exercise in writing:

1.  Russian, spicy, soup

2.  silver, English, expensive, vase

Meaningful Learning

Teacher: Where do you live?

Student: I live in Queens.

Teacher: Tell me about your neighborhood.  Is it quiet?

Student: Yes, it is.  We don’t see the police often.

Teacher: is talking about a burglary in his/her apartment building and shows an item that was previously stolen.  So what do we do if we realize that somebody broke into our apartment?

Student: We call the police.

Teacher: And what do the police want to know?

Student: They want to know what was stolen and how those items look like.

The EFL students describe the stolen items and learn the correct order of the adjectives before a noun in the process.  To further practice that, they have to properly put together the list of the stolen items for the police.  In addition, they have to select the thief among suspects according to a detailed description.  Finally, the students talk about a burglary they are familiar with and use the correct order of the adjectives before the noun.

This was an easy-to-understand contrast between rote and meaningful learning.  The result will be that the EFL students remember the content of this class much longer than the content of the rote-learning class. Our classroom practice today is guided by the Principle of Meaningful Learning.