SLAP into a New Language: A 4-Step Method to Learn and Teach English

While Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more speakers the world over, English has unofficially become the language of the world.

When tourists can’t speak the language of the country they are visiting, they often attempt to express themselves in English. It makes sense that so many people worldwide want to learn English.

Unfortunately, for many, it seems like an impossible task. No matter how much they study, they find it difficult to become proficient in the language. Why is that?

The answer is obvious: studying alone is not enough.

Learning a language is a difficult ordeal, and not everyone that studies a language learns it. I have been both a student and a teacher of languages, and over the years I’ve developed a different approach—a method if you will—to learning languages that is very effective.

SLAP: A 4-Step Method to Learn and Teach English

The method is very simple; if you want to learn a language, you need to SLAP yourself. Conversely, if you are teaching a language, you should get the students to SLAP themselves.

No, of course I don’t want you to hit yourself! The SLAP method identifies four areas of focus when attempting to learn a language. Each letter in the word SLAP stands for one of those areas.

Let’s look at each focus area one by one:

1. Study

The “S” stands for “study.” While this may seem an obvious step, many people misunderstand what it means. For our purposes, study means the use of textbooks, language guides or (especially in today’s technology-driven society) smartphone/tablet apps. Texts are a very important part of learning; it’s necessary to have something to reference if students are unsure.

The problem is that many students stop there. They buy a textbook, either on their own or as part of an actual course, and memorize all the examples given. Especially for English, there is no shortage of textbooks on the market. Yet, even if a student were to buy them all and memorize every single word in every single textbook, they still would not be able to become fluent. Why? Because in a real-life dialogue, the person they are conversing with probably didn’t read the same textbook. Textbooks prepare the student by offering information such as vocabulary, idioms and sample dialogues. But in the SLAP method, it’s only the first step.

As teachers, if it’s possible to choose your own textbooks, look for ones that present numerous examples of sentence structures, phrases, etc. so students can get a better understanding of them.

Textbooks with drills are effective, as they can help test the students to make sure they are using what they have learned correctly. If your textbook does not have adequate drills (or even if it does!), make your own. Go beyond what is written in the book and help relate it to the students’ lives. If a question in the book quizzes the student on what a character did in a certain situation, provide a question on how the student would have behaved under similar circumstances.

Students cannot learn a language without studying, but studying is not the only thing they have to do to truly learn the language.

2. Listen and Learn

Listening is the next area of focus. Ernest Hemingway once said, “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” While he was almost certainly not talking about learning a foreign language, it still applies.

The second part of that quote is the reason why so many people fail at learning a language, even though they may be studying as hard as they can. Being able to identify and understand written phrases is great, but if students can’t understand them in actual dialogue, it means nothing. We need to train our students’ ears to understand English.

One of the reasons why studying abroad is so effective is because even outside of the classroom, students are surrounded by the language. They see it everywhere they go, but more importantly, they hear it everywhere they go. If learning by osmosis really does exist, it’s because listening to a language is such an important part to learning.

We often hear that people “pick up” a language by being around native speakers. What this really means is that they hear the language so much that it becomes natural for them to imitate it. To be proactive about getting students to learn the language, we need to go beyond just hearing and make an effort to get students to listen to the language.

There are many opportunities to listen to English. Spoken conversations are the most obvious source, and the end goal for students should be to understand those conversations eventually. Studying abroad immerses them into an environment where only English is spoken, but even if they can’t make the trip to a foreign country, they can still find ways to listen to the language. Many textbooks come with CDs or DVDs that allow students to hear the material they’re studying in different situations. These are excellent sources, but there are many more.

One listening source that’s sadly often overlooked is music. For some reason, perhaps insecurities about singing (on the parts of both students and teachers), songs aren’t often used when teaching English to adults.

For children, it’s a more common tool since they care less about how well they sing. Kids just look at singing as a more fun way to learn than rote memorization and drilling. Songs may not be a perfect representation of how people speak a given language, but they can be excellent examples of idioms, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Students don’t even necessarily have to sing to make songs effective. Music and rhythm in general also help us remember things. If you were to ask someone what the 17th letter of the English alphabet is, that person (even if they are a native speaker) would likely either count off the letters in a rhythmic chant, or (more likely than not) sing the ABC song to themselves while counting. Songs help us learn, so we should give students more opportunities to listen to songs in their studies.

Another source to help listening is popular visual media (TV shows, movies, even commercials). Dialogue found in TV shows and movies is often representative of natural speech. Even without traveling to a foreign country, students can use visual media to train their ears to recognize sentence structures and vocabulary.

Another method that’s ideal for those who already have good reading skills is to watch a DVD with both the audio and subtitle tracks set to English. If the student can read well enough to keep up, he or she can use this method to help their listening skills.

The next two steps are very straightforward, but they should not be forgotten.

3. Ask (If You Don’t Know)

The A in the SLAP method is probably the most overlooked step, yet it is just as important as any other: ask. It is often said that children learn much more easily than adults. The old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is representative of that. If you’ve ever been around very young children, you will notice something about them—they are constantly asking questions. Whether or not this is the reason why they learn so easily, I cannot say. However, I can say with great certainty that when learning English—or anything, really—it’s very important to ask questions.

Students should feel comfortable enough to ask their teacher (or native speakers) why something is a certain way, or if it’s the same way in another situation. Students should ask other English learners how they remember certain aspects of the language. Adults are especially afraid to ask questions, even though many teachers begin their course by telling their students to ask if they don’t understand something (“because if you don’t understand it, somebody else probably doesn’t understand it, either”).

As teachers, always remember to give opportunities for the students to ask questions. Be prepared to give answers for possible questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say that you will look it up and have an answer for them the next time you meet. When students ask questions that go beyond the material, it’s a sign that they are involved. As teachers, we should look forward to these questions. 

4. Practice Makes Perfect

The final focus area of the SLAP method is “practice.”  Studying, listening and asking questions will help, but they mean next to nothing if the students don’t practice what they’ve learned. Have students attempt to speak in English when speaking with you. Give them opportunities to practice with each other.

One effective way to do this is through role plays. Establish a real-life setting, such as ordering at a restaurant, shopping in a store, etc. Supply a script at first to give your students confidence, but once they have understood the pattern, you can have them start to replace parts of the script (e.g. order fish instead of chicken). Finally, let the student practice using their own preferences, so that when they are faced with the same situation on their own, they are familiar with the expected dialogue.

So, as teachers, we should always keep in mind these four areas when helping our students learn English. Don’t just help them to study their textbooks; go beyond that and help their listening skills grow, encourage them to ask questions, and most of all, help them practice what they have learned.

SLAP them into learning English.

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