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Structure and Balance Your Language Learning with the Principle of the “4 Strands”

A principle for learning any language

Four planes
Photo by Gabriel Gusmao on Unsplash

English is my second language.

It’s also the language I’m qualified to teach.

I learned English by living in English-speaking countries, where I was exposed to the language and had to speak it to survive.

I also took English classes, did English language exams, and studied on my own. I developed my fluency across all four skills by practicing every day — for years.

I was very organized and motivated as I wanted to become an English language teacher.

But your situation may be different. Maybe you:

  • live in a country where nobody speaks the language you’re learning.
  • are too busy and don’t have enough time to learn.
  • struggle to organize yourself and commit to learning a language.
  • are unsure what to do to learn.

Or you might simply be wondering if:

  • you should study more grammar or focus more on having conversations.
  • you should read more books in the language you’re learning or watch more movies.
  • you should read more, speak more, write more, or listen more.

If this is you, the principle of the 4 strands can help you find focus and clarity so you can structure, balance and maximize your language learning journey.

In this article, I’ll tell you:

  • what this principle is.
  • how it works.
  • how you could apply it.

I hope you’ll find this helpful.

The 4 strands explained

Four puzzle pieces
Photo by Mike van Schoonderwalt on Pexel

The principle of the 4 strands was formulated by Paul Nation, an internationally recognized scholar in the field of linguistics and teaching methodology, to help language teachers and course developers ensure a balance of learning opportunities in language courses.

The principle says that to have a well-balanced language course, you should spend roughly equal amounts of time on:

  1. learning from meaning-focused input
  2. learning from meaning-focused output
  3. language-focused learning
  4. fluency development.

(Nation, 2014)

This means that you should spend roughly 25% of your time on each strand.

Don’t worry if you’re not a language teacher. You can easily apply the 4 strands as a learner too.

Let’s see what each strand involves.

Strand #1: Learning from meaning-focused input

A woman reading a book
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Learning from meaning-focused input means exposing yourself to language through listening and reading, and directing your attention to the message conveyed by the language — not its form.

To devote time to this strand, you need to focus on understanding and enjoying the input without worrying about the grammar, vocabulary, and syntactic patterns that make up the message.

This is why it’s important that you read and listen to things you can enjoy and understand without difficulty.

If the input is filled with new words and structures, then you naturally won’t enjoy it, so you should stop and go find something easier.

You can learn from meaning-focused input by:

  • listening to stories, podcasts, and radio programs.
  • having conversations.
  • watching TV, videos, clips, and movies.
  • reading books, articles, comics, and magazines.
  • reading graded readers.
  • participating in book clubs.

Strand #2: Learning from meaning-focused output

A woman speaking into a loudspeaker
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Learning from meaning-focused output means learning through speaking and writing. In other words, you learn by “producing” language.

The focus of this strand is, again, on the message, not the form.

So you should speak and write focusing on the information you are trying to convey, not because you want to practice a particular grammatical structure or a vocabulary set.

You can learn from meaning-focused output by:

  • doing the 4–3–2 activity
  • writing articles on Medium.
  • writing and telling stories.
  • having conversations.
  • writing emails, letters, and summaries.
  • writing reviews about books, movies, restaurants, services, places, etc.
  • leaving comments on social media.
  • keeping a diary or a journal.
  • telling jokes.
  • recording videos of yourself speaking and posting them on social media.
  • sending voice messages to your friends.
  • writing and talking about topics that are familiar to you.

Strand #3: Language-focused learning

a dictionary
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

This strand involves paying deliberate attention to language features.

This is just a fancy way to say that you should study the language.

You need to notice and focus on the building blocks that make up a language such as grammar, patterns, structures, words, syntax, and so on.

You can spend time on language-focused learning by:

  • transcribing speech.
  • looking up words in dictionaries.
  • asking people to correct you.
  • recording yourself and analyzing the language you used.
  • organizing words in word maps around topics.
  • analyzing the language in a text.
  • classifying and reviewing new words you’ve learned.
  • doing grammar and vocabulary exercises.
  • doing translation exercises.
  • doing intensive reading activities (reading a text slowly and carefully with the help of a dictionary).
  • using vocabulary flashcards.
  • keeping a vocabulary notebook.
  • guessing the meaning of words from the context in which you find them.
  • studying language rules.

Strand #4: Fluency development

four arrows
Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash

Fluency is the ability to “[make] the best use of what is already known” (Nation, 2014:11), so this strand focuses on the meaningful use of the language resources that you already have.

The goal is not to learn more language.

The goal is to put into practice what you already know across the four skills — reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

You may be wondering, “So what’s the difference between this strand and the meaning-focused input and meaning-focused output strands?”

The fluency development strand shares features of these other two strands, but Nation suggests that to develop fluency (reading, listening, speaking, and writing fluency) you should:

  • do activities that are intentionally easy for you.
  • be under pressure to perform faster than usual.
  • produce or receive a large amount of language that is familiar to you.
  • do activities that focus on the message, not the form of the language.

You can work on fluency development by:

  • doing the 4–3–2 activity.
  • reading graded readers.
  • doing speed reading activities.
  • writing continuously for 10 minutes about a familiar without worrying about mistakes.
  • doing repeated reading activities (read the same text at least three times, each time trying to increase the speed at which it is read).
  • doing repeated writing activities (write a text, get it checked and corrected, look at it carefully, put it away, write it again from memory, and then check your writing with the original).

How to apply the principle of the 4 strands

A notebook with a to do list and 4 bullet points
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexel

Let’s say you want to learn a second language but you only have 30 minutes a day 5 times a week.

What are you going to focus on?

This is what your language learning plan would look like if you applied the 4 strands:

  • Monday: read an easy book (meaning-focused input)
  • Tuesday: write a 200-word article on Medium (meaning-focused output)
  • Wednesday: study grammar and do vocabulary exercises (language-focused learning)
  • Thursday: do the 4–3–2 activity and send vocal messages to your friends. (fluency development)
  • Friday: have conversations with another learner or a native speaker of the language on Zoom (a mix of the strands).

Of course, the principle is not a rigid dogma that you should follow like a robot.

Feel free to do what you feel like doing in the moment.

You can view the 4 strands as a useful tool that you can use when you’re not sure whether you’re doing too much of one thing (e.g. studying grammar) and not enough of another (e.g. reading).

It’s also a tool that can help you structure your autonomous learning and become more organized too.

Final thoughts on the 4 strands

Following the principle of the 4 strands can help you achieve a balance of language learning activities so you can add variety to your language learning journey, knowing you’re not neglecting any key areas.

The principle can help you find focus, clarity, and organization in your learning.

I’ve personally never applied it consciously, but it’s worth exploring if you feel unsure about how to learn, what to do to learn, or have limited time to work on your second language skills and don’t know what to do with that time.

I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to ask me all the questions you want.

I’ll be happy to help you.

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