An explanation of the method, how I created it, and the science behind it.
I am a total neuroscience nerd. I LOVE studying how the brain acquires and retains new knowledge. I love to study the way the brain makes linguistic connections and exactly how that happens. I love studying how Neuroplasticity, Neurodiversity, and Growth Mindset play a huge role in how connections are formed in the brain to retain knowledge. I read books for fun on how racism and bias affect the brain and how it literally grows when inherent bias is dispelled and human connections are formed. My research initially began in college when I was studying applied linguistics. The method by which French is taught in France, and ESL here in the United States, is completely different than the method that many World Language teachers use. As a college student, I questioned why we teach World Languages through a primarily translation-based method rather than the way we teach ESL or FLE (français langue étrangère- essentially the equivalent of ESL in France) through an immersive, non-translation method. While I realized that most students in the ESL or FLE environments were primarily not of the same L1 (first language or mother tongue) background, in my mind, there was really still no reason for teaching World Languages differently. It is widely known and proven that immersion is the most effective way to learn a language, especially when coupled with formal instruction in the target language. When I became a classroom French teacher in an American high school and then the World Languages Curriculum Specialist in my district, I pushed for a more immersive, zero-translation method that I knew was highly effective in promoting fluency. However, the district powers-that-be pushed back against me, and ultimately I decided to go my own way. Fortunately, things are changing, albeit slowly.
Still, they are changing, and teachers seek out new and more scientifically proven methods of engaging learners in language so they retain the language and gain fluency. While the LW5S method remains somewhat controversial, it is gaining traction in language learning and other subject areas. In this post, I will talk about the method, the science behind it, what prompted me to really start pushing it, and some resources you can use to get started with it. If you would like more information after reading this post, I have written a whole book about it called -Pathways to Language Fluency.
Let's Discuss the Brain
This is your brain. Isn't it beautiful? Your brain is divided between the lower brain and the upper brain. The lower brain is the oldest part of the brain and is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. This part of the brain is responsible for all that is human instinct. It houses the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that tells us if we are in danger or not, our fight or flight response. Also located in the lower brain is the Reticular Activating System (or RAS). The RAS is what filters information into the brain. We'll talk more about the RAS in a minute. The upper brain is our conscious brain. It is responsible for all of our executive functioning, our decisions, where language is developed, and where learning is stored. It is our thinking brain. The upper brain is divided into four lobes: the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the temporal lobe, and the occipital lobe. Here is a graphic that describes the functions of each lobe:
In the very front of your brain, in the frontal lobe, is your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is where all of your executive functioning and higher-order thinking skills happen. All of our reasoning, temperament, empathy, and decision-making happen in this area. This is the part of the brain that grows the most with development in language, music, the arts, global citizenship, and human connection. The prefrontal cortex is the youngest part of the brain. Scientists estimate that it is only about 3-4 million years old!
Our brain cells are called neurons. We are born with approximately 100 billion neurons, and we can grow an infinite number! When learning happens, dendrites grow out of the neurons.
Dendrites are short branch extensions that grow out of the neuron. When two dendrites grow close together, they form a contact point called a synapse. Neurotransmitters carry messages across the synapses when learning is reinforced, and connections are made to previous knowledge! The more you learn, the more dendrites you grow, the more connections are made in the brain! Have you ever wondered why your brain is so wrinkly? That's because your brain can grow infinitely. The brain is the only organ that keeps growing and doesn't reach a "full size." The brain folds in on itself to keep growing and creates a slippery substance to help the neurotransmitters communicate more efficiently. This process is called myelination. When I say that travel, learning languages, and human connection literally grow your brain, I mean it! Your brain grows larger every time you learn and reinforce a new skill. Further, your prefrontal cortex grows exponentially when you develop language and global skills!
All Learning is Sensory
We have these special tools in our body called sensory receptors. I'm sure you've heard of them before, otherwise known as our five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. These sensory receptors are located on our skin, in our eyes, in our noses, on our tongues, and in our ears! Whenever a sensory receptor receives new information, it sends the information to the RAS. The RAS is the watchdog of our brains. The brain is the only organ that doesn't make its own resources but uses 60% of the body's resources, so it has to be very careful about its resources. Therefore, the RAS's job is to decide what information is important enough to be sent into the brain for processing. The more sensory receptors sending the information through the RAS, the more likely the chance that the RAS will let the information pass through. Once the RAS has allowed the information to pass through, it goes to the amygdala. The amygdala is the security guard for the brain. This is where information is evaluated to make sure that it's not a threat. The amygdala is what kept cave people safe from saber-toothed tigers by telling them to run away. It is where our raw emotional responses live. Once it is determined that the information is not a threat, it passes through to the upper brain, to the correct lobe. When sensory information comes from multiple sensory receptors, it is sent to multiple lobes, illuminating areas that can make connections with each other. The more we use our senses in learning and reinforcement, the more likely we are to retain that new information and connect to previous learning. Further, using the senses in the learning process creates double the brain's connections instead of traditional learning methods such as lecture, reading, and rote memorization.
Using the senses to push information through the RAS, growing dendrites and synapses, making connections in the brain, and myelination all make our brains grow, but there is one more step in making that growth malleable. This step is Growth Mindset. A growth mindset is a person's willingness to push beyond what is comfortable, working hard, and being dedicated to the learning process. As easy it may sound, retaining new skills and knowledge in the brain is a process that requires us to exercise our brains. We have to make our brains think critically for this process to really work! It takes time to learn and master new skills, and therefore, this process is not quick. In our instant gratification culture, we have to realize that neuroplasticity takes time. It takes effort and takes grit.
Learning the LW5S Way
Initially, when designing the Language with the Five Senses method, I had my older son Daniel in mind. I also had just language acquisition in mind. He has Autism and didn't speak until he was 4 years old. Now we can't get him to be quiet! But I digress. We used a method of communication with him that involved sign language, images, and songs. Daniel really got me thinking a lot about language acquisition and how our native languages are acquired in the brain. When I had my second son, I noticed an interesting phenomenon- since both of my kids were being raised bilingual, I noticed my second son mixing languages. This was curious to me and had me analyzing and studying why this happens (it's completely normal, by the way). This led me to research more into my earlier questions about why ESL and FLE were taught differently than World Languages besides the fact that one population comes from multiple L1 backgrounds. In contrast, the other is a homogenous L1 background, for the most part. There are multiple other issues with the way world languages are traditionally taught in the United States besides using translation methods. One of the biggest issues we have is the age we start language here. Honestly, research and science have proven that the younger a student begins learning a second language, the more likely they will master it. The easier it will be for that student to learn more languages. It is my strong belief that we need a language revolution in this country! We need to start students as early as possible in learning languages, and we need to eliminate translation. Language with the Five Senses is a method that is zero-translation. I think many believe that fluency and accuracy are the same. Fluency is the speed at which you can process and produce language. It is the flow. Not all those who are fluent in a language are accurate. Not all children who read with fluency are always accurate. Translation makes a person rely on being accurate all the time, and it also creates a reliance on the first language, hindering fluency. Not only that, but remember when I mentioned earlier that the RAS is very picky about the information it lets through? Because the brain has to conserve resources, it will always default to what is easier or already known! To learn anything, we have to make our brains work! When it comes to language, what is familiar is our native language. If translations are presented, the brain will completely ignore the target language. This is why some Comprehensible Input or CI (language input that listeners can understand despite them not understanding all the words and structures) methods that use translation drive me insane! Yes, you are giving a student comprehensible input; however, when you write the word in English while saying the word in French, the brain ignores the French! It's scientifically proven! It does not work. I once got into an argument at a World Language conference about this with a very popular Comprehensible Input "expert." He just didn't want to hear me why the science doesn't support translation being effective and kept trying to draw me back into a "discussion" with him about it. I finally had to walk away from him. Honestly, you can't argue with science. People sure try, but you really can't. Of course, some CI is better than no CI. Translation can also cause significant cultural blunders and miscommunication if something doesn't translate well from the L1 to the L2 (the target language). I have a couple of friends who are translators in France. One of my friends is a translator from English, Portuguese, and Spanish. She only speaks one language fluently, her native language- French. She can read and write in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, but her speaking skills are greatly lacking, and it's hard to hold a conversation with her unless we are speaking French. Translation is a very different skill in the brain, and those that learn through translation will very rarely become fluent, and if they do, their path to fluency is significantly prolonged. In my expert opinion, it is better to be understood than precise. Of course, zero translation does not mean zero L1. We use the L1 in the early years to explain grammar rules, make word associations, retell stories, and explain culture. The L1 can be beneficial, but when teaching with the LW5S method, it should never be used to translate. I am extremely opinionated on this issue, and I realize that my viewpoint isn't always popular, but I stand by it 100%.
A Focus on Human Connection
Language is so much a part of human existence that we never really think about it. What is the purpose of language? Language is how we get our basic needs met and interact with the world around us at its very base. When we learn our first language as children, we learn it mostly from our caregivers who speak to us, read stories, sing songs, and interact with us. We learn our first language through connection with other humans. Human connection is essential in learning language or just learning in general. We cannot learn language in a bubble and so to me, this idea that you can learn language from Duolingo (I HATE Duolingo- I have a saying that "friends don't let friends use Duolingo"), or a computer program that gives you zero interaction with another human is just preposterous. Again, science does not support it. In fact, this goes beyond language to all learning. Learning has to be reinforced through applied experiences and interaction. It is challenging to master anything without experiencing it. When children learn their native languages, they spend a year or more just listening—a human needs between 300 and 1500 hours of simply listening to language to produce spontaneous language. Then slowly comes babbling, repeating words, one spontaneous word, then two words, etc. Children don't read for at least 5 years, and writing comes after reading! It drives me insane when people think that they should just be able to speak fluently immediately! You didn't speak fluently for a very long time in your native language. Why should it be any different in the new language? The LW5S method mimics the way you learn your first language. When learning languages, the brain must first develop receptive competencies before the expressive.
Receptive refers to the skills that are developed through receiving information from our sensory receptors. The receptive competencies are listening and reading. Expressive refers to the language that a person can produce spontaneously after significant time spent developing the receptive competencies. The expressive competencies are speaking and writing. The development of these competencies relies on a significant amount of human connection, interaction, and experiences. Fluency will come when the brain is ready, and a person will develop fluency in different competencies at different times. Learning anything takes time, it is a process, and you have to be patient.
Culture and Global Citizenship
In addition to human connection, the LW5S method focuses heavily on global citizenship education and culture. Students must understand the culture or cultures of the people who speak the language they are learning. Global citizenship education gives the students an understanding of how they are a part of greater humanity and how we are all connected as humans worldwide. The integration of culture and global citizenship into the curriculum and the method develop the brain's prefrontal cortex and reinforce language skills. Further, culture and global citizenship create further connections in the brain to help students retain the skills being learned long-term.
Student-Centered and Brain-Friendly
Teaching with the LW5S method is to create a learning environment that puts the learner first. Many of you know how anti-testing I am. That is all kinds of tests, not just standardized. Science proves that practical application of learning is significantly more effective than testing, and therefore the LW5S method is zero-testing. Instead, we focus on fostering relationships through Performance-Based Learning and thematic units. Students apply rather than regurgitate. Bon Voyage is a fully online school, and we do not test. Not ever. Our focus is fully on what is best for the student and what is best for growing those dendrites! To read more about this in detail, check out my book, The Performance Based Solution.
The LW5S Process
The Language with the Five Senses method follows a precise process for learning. This process is based on how the brain receives and processes sensory information.
I Listen– Students simply listen to the language. They are not asked to produce at this point, only to listen to the language. This is done through reading short stories or bits of text that use the vocabulary they will learn.
I Move My Body- students are still listening. Still, now they are asked to sing the specific vocabulary words or grammar concepts while putting them together with body movements and gestures. Singing the words along with moving the body help create language connections in the brain. Singing, chanting, and body movement does two things:
When language is put to rhythm or music, it goes directly into long-term memory. This is solidified when the rhythm is put to a body movement, making kinesthetic connections.
Singing language creates better pronunciation because we hear rhythmic language in a different way than we hear spoken language.
I Draw- students draw pictures of the vocabulary to associate words with images instead of words with words. The teacher draws along with the students and describes the drawing while the students draw along, loading the student with receptive language and solidifying word to picture associations. Drawing words also engages the kinesthetic connections.
I Play - Students “play” with the language through very carefully crafted language games. When a student is having fun, connections in the brain are solidified, and information goes directly to long-term memory.
I Create -Students apply the language in project-based assessments that ask them to apply skills.
I Cook -Students cook and learn about food from the cultures that speak the language.
LW5S is not just for language
I have spent most of my career as a language teacher. However, in addition to French, I am certified in general education grades k-8 (with a focus on social studies and ELA), English grades k-12, and I am a curriculum specialist for K-12 World Languages, ELA, and Social
Studies. I've found many parts of this method work for ALL learning, not just language because it's based on the science behind how our brains naturally acquire and retain knowledge. Neuroscience tells us that the more sensory receptors receive information, the more likely the RAS is to allow the information to be processed in the brain. Science also tells us that the more sensory input sent through the RAS, the more parts of the brain are illuminated, and the more dendrites grow. We know that human connection, relationships in learning grow the prefrontal cortex, and learning never happens in a bubble. In developing LW5S, I made sure that the method was interdisciplinary, that we were focusing on a whole education approach, not just subject by subject. This is why you will find resources in our share drive that are not just for World languages but that integrate social studies, science, language, math, global citizenship, and culture. I also strive to decolonize the curriculum and make sure that all materials and resources are culturally responsive. Students need to feel that they are validated, that they are important, and that they see themselves represented in the curriculum. I focus heavily on building relationships with students before all else because I cannot get to content before trusting relationships have been established.
Voilà, an overview of LW5S so you can further understand the science behind the method. I have worked hard on this and continually re-evaluate and re-assess the method to bring it up to date. I am constantly editing materials and making sure they are updated.
For more videos, you can visit the Language with the Five Senses Education YouTube Channel.
Both of my books can be found on the Language with the Five Senses Education website or through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold.