How is language learning like a roller coaster?
Diane Larsen-Freeman (2008) notes that language learning is a complex, dynamic system. According to Freeman, language learning is constantly in motion. Like the loops of a roller coaster, students are taken on a journey in which language is learned and then reiterated again and again within this system.
As we’ve written before, this reiteration can efficiently take place at the phrase level, especially at the lowest levels. The “grammar of the phrase” places vocabulary and grammar on a continuum where students learn to reorganize and reiterate language through fixed and semi-fixed expressions. Throughout this process, words are spiraled in and out of flexible lexical chunks. Vocabulary and grammar travel around the loops again and again as learners complete language tasks that have them slot new words into key phrases.
When students are asked to produce new forms, they are pushed to the edge, like the centrifugal force that pushes the coaster and its riders around the edge of each loop. Our goal as teachers is to make sure that this force is not too weak or too strong, but enough to allow for learning and novel forms to emerge. This balance of risk and safety in using new language is what we term the Rollercoaster Effect.
To create the rollercoaster effect, we need scaffolding that feels exciting but is not overwhelming. This shadows Vygotsky’s metaphor of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). As teachers, we have to determine our students’ current language level, or “interlanguage” and add a +1. In a similar fashion, Freeman (2008) suggests that learners have a “latent potential” to learn language, but that this can only be realized “in a suitable discourse environment” that scaffolds the use of the novel forms through meaningful tasks. In other words, timing and purposeful use are crucial.
Architects who design roller coaster know this. They know where and when to place the loops, and how many for the greatest effect. Likewise, this means that we as teachers are tasked with pushing our students far enough but not too far. Just as architects can change the size and complexity of a loop, we too have to decide how big and complex a language task should be to allow for optimum learning to take place. It also means letting our students take risks, pushing them off to do so, and letting go of some control.
Roller coasters are designed to push riders to the edge and revel in the present moment. It is an adrenaline rush, similar to the rush the brain feels when processing new language. In the language classroom, this sense of euphoria can be more fully exploited if we recognize the final stage of a ride.
At the very end, riders experience a “calm alertness.” The cars stop looping and slow down, and riders are given time to process the process. Psychologists call this period a “parasympathetic rebound,” which refers to the calmness that occurs immediately after a period of intensity.
This is the final stage of the rollercoaster effect. For language leaners, this latency period is so important because it is a time when they are most alert. They can begin to look back at what they have learned and reflect on it. They are given time to process all the loops in a more self-directed way, with less teacher intervention.
As teachers, we can provide opportunities for reflection to take place by asking students what they have applied, rather than punishing them for things they have not yet mastered. The can count their successes rather than their errors.
Likewise, through targeted peer reviews, we can get students to reflect on content and audience, showing them that the ultimate purpose of language is to communicate and share ideas with others. By doing so, we give students the time necessary to process the spirals they’ve just been through.
A spiraling lesson plan that tracks the experience of a roller coaster includes several elements, including careful scaffolding to create moments of preparation, opportunities for risk and excitement, and final opportunities for calm alertness and reflection after the “loops.” It requires care from the teacher and faith in the learner, but when done correctly, it has the potential to turn into a great ride.
Freeman, L.F. & Lynne Cameron (2008). Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Savage, A. & C. Ward (2015). Trio Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.