The English Attack! Pedagogical Principles are based on the conclusions of the latest brain-based learning research, with a specific focus on the factors driving the motivation of teens and young adult language learners. Our approach uses elements of the Lexical and Communicative approaches in English Language Teaching pedagogy adapted to an online environment; and input from a wide range of EFL professionals on how specific forms and formats of authentic materials; game-like interfaces and experiences, and social network communication create optimal conditions for learning.
1. Meaningful Context: All exercises, quizzes, polls, comments, games and social communication on English Attack! occurs in the context of specific content, giving it meaning. You will never encounter a disembodied, out-of-context vocabulary list on English Attack!
2. More, better input leads to more, better output: The biggest problem with most language learning occurring in a non-immersive environment (i.e. outside the country of the target language) is that learners are simply not exposed to enough input, over the course of the days, weeks and months, to develop recognition of the lexis, patterns and uses of the language being studied. English Attack ! is designed to help increase that exposure by packaging it in short-format, assisted, interactive units based on forms of online entertainment that are already part of the media and leisure consumption behavior of teen and young adult learners outside of their language-learning endeavors.
3. 100% Authentic Materials: The role of English Attack! is not to compete with language teachers and classrooms in clarifying structure, but rather to expose learners to real-life lexis, phonology, usage and use, with all their contradictions and exceptions. Thus all materials on the site are authentic, i.e. devised for a general English mother-tongue public and not artificially created for L2 learners.
4. No grammar terminology: We believe that it is impossible to “explain” grammar rules using classic grammar terminology without making the clarification of usage more complex than it already is. As an alternative, we attempt to explain why a given form is used in a given situation (one just seen in a movie clip) as simply and briefly as possible. We follow up with an example showing the target usage taken from the transcript of the just-seen video; and drill the usage in a game-like interface so that the usage principle becomes a habit when the learner encounters similar contextual situations.
5. No subtitles: Like many other ELT observers, we believe that the use of subtitles with video just makes the learner better at reading (whether in L1 or L2): it does not help with acquiring autonomy in listening and comprehending the gist of spoken English. All our video is thus unassisted on screen, forcing the learner to listen carefully and negotiate meaning using all audio-visual clues, from the setting and actions of the video to the expressions on the faces and the tones of voices of the actors or speakers. A transcript of the video (completed in part by the learner) is made available later in the exercise, but separate from the video, to allow scanning, detail reading, and vocabulary exploration.
6. Immediate feedback and reward: Like videogames, our method embraces “failure” as a part of the learning process instead of penalizing it. Through trial and error, and immediate and continuous feedback, the learner starts to use new lexis in meaningful ways, and starts to acquire reflexes for correct usage in specific situations that build up over time in such a way as to be able to be recalled to deal with similar new situations.
7. Discovery Learning approach: We feel that choice leads to motivation, which is why English Attack! users have a broad choice of topics, formats and interactions to choose from, ranging from videos of the latest Hollywood blockbusters to news reports to Visual Dictionaries, polls, and social networking. We feel that learners will naturally be attracted to the content and formats which stimulate them the most, and that in turn this stimulation will lead to better, faster learning through self-motivation.
8. Goal-driven: Learners thrive on the challenge of a non-stressful but clearly goal-driven universe, even if that universe is a virtual, fun one. Thus we use points, badges, virtual currency, medals and status levels to keep the challenge levels high, while providing “just within reach” objectives to encourage and provide positive reinforcement when the objectives are reached. Most importantly, our goals do not penalize the beginner or slower learner in that they are not achievement-oriented (e.g. passing a placement or practice TOEIC test), but rather they purely reward effort, activity and communication. A beginner can thus obtain a score just as high as that of an advanced learner based on his or her time spent experiencing content and interacting with other learners on English Attack!
9. Lexis is key – grammar as lexis: We fully subscribe to the Michael Lewis insight that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.” Lexical phrases, especially if they are drawn from authentic materials, equip learners with far better tools for meaningful communication than a rules-driven approach, in recognition of the fact that we speak in language chunks, not language formulae. Over time, the patterns in the lexical phrases become familiar and create the basis of a subconscious awareness of proper structure.
10. English as the world’s Lingua Franca: We do not favor any national variant of English over others. Learners today need to be able to communicate with native speakers of English from across the globe, as well as with proficient non-native speakers of English. Accordingly, we will expose learners to all variants – indicating when one has a particularly national, local or ethnic origin and use – and all accents.
11. Meaning over 100% accuracy: Learners of English often become frustrated or even paralyzed by what they perceive as failure to achieve 100% accuracy across the four fundamental skills. We want to chip away at this sense of failure by showing that far more comprehension and communicative effectiveness can be achieved than learners may think is possible, even with fairly complex authentic input material.
12. Emotion leads to learning: Great scenes from films, breaking news reports on dramatic topics from around the world, and music all generate emotion in ways that graded materials never can. We seek to use that emotion to optimize the condition for learning, which is far more effective when a learner’s emotions are involved – particularly at the adolescent and early adulthood ages which are our core focus.
13. Everyday language is real language: We know that, once out in the real world of English, learners will be exposed to non-standard or idiomatic English as frequently – if not more frequently – than standard English. We thus include all forms of language – from idioms to slang to acronyms and cultural references – in our authentic materials input, and label each so that the learner knows when the language is standard and when it is not.
14. Learning is best done in short bursts: In most cases, our learners will have other courses at school, or a job, or family duties, pulling at their schedule. English Attack! is thus designed to be used in short (15 – 30-minute) bursts, which fits both the “manageable chunk” approach in ELT and the short-form media and entertainment preferences (as seen with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) of teens and young adults.
15. A lexical term has just one definition in one context. Even though words or even phrases can have different meanings, the only meaning that is relevant to the learner at a given point in time – the moment the lexical term is encountered – is the meaning that is relevant to the specific context in which the term is being experienced. So we provide only that definition, and an example and exercises that go with that definition, rather than a whole range of definitions that would only create confusion.
16. Language via Social Interaction and Participation : By providing our learners with a community of other learners of English with whom they can play games, exchange comments and opinions, and make friends; and by rewarding community participation (voting, comments, content creation), we encourage the kind of free-form functional communication they will need to use most frequently in the real world. And because the English Attack! community is one of learners of English, they will tend to be less shy about expressing themselves than in a purely native-speaker immersive environment.
17. Some L1 use and translation are OK: Although all our source material and exercises are exclusively in English, we provide the option of instruction on how to use the site, as well as navigation of the site and interstitial motivational messages, in the learner’s local language. We also provide localized translation tools, bilingual dictionaries and conversation guides. The truth is that most learners are at least partially mentally translating the L2 anyway; and — particularly for beginners — these “islands of familiarity” boost confidence and reassure learners that the site can be explored and used progressively in a stress-free manner.
18. Drill, but make it fun: The concept of the “drill” is the baby which risks being thrown out with the bath-water in the move to a more communicative approach. On the contrary, repetition is a hugely useful tool in creating the mental patterns that will allow learners to use language more automatically. Our approach is to integrate repetition within casual online game mechanics to keep the tasks (always within a context) more entertaining for the learner and to create a sense of challenge and progress around the drill exercise. We also use repetition games to provide re-exposure to lexical and usage items weeks and months after the initial exposure, gradually building up the exposure so that it eventually becomes intake and then knowledge.