Meaningful learning in action: Using learners’ knowledge of L1


In my previous post we looked at the concept of ‘meaningful learning’, the idea of taking what learners already know and using it to help them to learn more.  In this post, I want to start looking at how to do this in the classroom.

Using learners’ knowledge of L1.

This clearly cuts into a controversial issue in ELT for the past thirty years or so – the use of the mother tongue.  What I’d like to argue is that we can’t/shouldn’t ignore all this knowledge that learners have and that in fact we can use it to help them, particularly considering the concept of ‘meaningful learning’.

Let’s take a simple example – predicting mistakes.

Every teacher who’s taught French, Spanish or Portuguese-speaking learners of English can predict that learners are going to make the mistake ‘I have 15 years’ at some point.  German learners for example will not make this mistake.  So, when we teach this form we can tell learners explicitly that English and Spanish (or French or Portuguese) work differently in this regard and that we talk about age differently.

Here, we are doing exactly as Ausubel suggests:  We know what the learner knows already (that in Spanish, French, Portuguese, we talk about age in terms of ‘having years’) and we’re going to use what we know that they know to help them to learn a piece of new information (that in English we talk about ‘being .. years old’ ).  We don’t even need to directly use the mother tongue to do this (if there’s a problem with this in your workplace), but we are helping learners to draw on their already existing knowledge to learn something new by referring to the mother tongue.

Another simple example of using what learners already know is the use of cognates.  There are so many words that learners already know that are similar to English words, why not point this out explicitly and teach learners to use what they know already about their mother tongue and the meanings of the words to help them learn the words in English.

For example, ridiculous, interesting – we don’t need to teach learners what these words (using words and definitions that they probably won’t understand) mean because they already know what they mean in L1 and they look similar to learners.  This allows us to use more ‘above level’ language more frequently if we point out and help learners to recognize cognates (compared to other languages like Japanese or Korean that don’t share a huge amount of cognates).

(Notice, the cognates are very often more elevated words because of the development of English from Latin / French, while the simpler words are often less similar to Spanish / Portuguese/French learners because they come from the Germanic roots of English. For example, good, cold, hot)

I’d be interested to hear ways in which you use the learner’s L1 knowledge to help the learner to learn English.  I think it’s another angle from which to consider the mother tongue debate.  It seems to make sense when we consider Ausubel’s meaningful learning.

More about ‘meaningful learning’ next month.


Ausubel, D.  (1978)  Educational Psychology:  a Cognitive View  Holt, Rhinehart and Winston

Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

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