What Makes “Whatever” Work – Essentials Of Any Language Program

We’re in the middle of a series whose basic point is that, when it comes to providing learners with material in the target language, “whatever works.”

If you expected a catch, you expected right.  Here it is:

That anything works is true of content. It’s not true of teacher-learner relationships, learner-learner relationships, classroom culture, or fundamental approaches and methodology.  For these, there is a large body of research and experience giving us a good idea that certain things work and certain things don’t.

The following Essentials, presented as diagnostic questions, are what we look for in a language program and what we help teachers, learners, and programs develop.  If “whatever works,” these are the things that make whatever work.

(The word “it” in the following statements refers to any language learning or teaching program, course, unit, lesson, method, technique, or activity.)


1. Communication—Does it prioritize the communicative function of language? Languages exist so that people can convey and understand messages. Any method or activity should keep communication at the forefront. (Communication does not always mean that the learner is speaking or writing: enjoying a novel, watching a cartoon, and checking a Twitter feed are all ways of participating in communication.)

2. Comprehension—Does it ensure that practically all students can understand?  What tools are students given to indicate a need for increased comprehensibility, preferably in real time?

3. Joy—Is it enjoyable? Does it take seriously that learning is most likely to happen in a joyful environment? How is joy modeled, engendered, and perpetuated?

4. Variety—Does it satisfy the brain’s need for novelty? Is there a good combination of both trusted activities, in which students are well trained and that provide security and consistency, and activities that are fresh?

5. Trust—Do learners trust the teacher? Do they have every reason to believe that the teacher will treat them with humanity? That the teacher is using effective methods? Do learners trust each other? Do autodidacts trust their materials and advisors? How is trust achieved?

6. Personalization—Does it take seriously students’ lives, interests, motivations, and personalities? How is personalization achieved?

7. Differentiation—Does it take seriously the circumstances under which and rates at which different people learn? How is differentiation achieved?

8. Ownership—Does it give students power over and responsibility for their own learning? Do students monitor their own learning process and use recommended tools to optimize it, preferably in real time?

9. Community—Are all these things practiced as a community, and do they strengthen community?

10. Sustainability—Can it last? Even if it is hard work, does it bring refreshment to teachers and learners? Are learners equipped and eager to create and teach new learners?


The absence of Input and Output as essential features may be conspicuous. The reason these are not on the list is that a program that does not provide huge amounts of input in the target language is not a language acquisition program in the first place, and output in communicative situations is the result of a good language program.

For a discussion of these points addressed to learners rather than teachers, see the articles on Essentials for Language Learners.  For more on Indwelling Language’s philosophy, see the Indwelling Language Manifesto and the other articles in the Blog section.  If you want help implementing these Essentials in your own language teaching or learning program, go ahead and explore our Services or use the Contact Form!


Still coming: Non-Targeted CI Lessons 3 and 4, “Not Today” and “Frivolity Is the Mother Of Invention.”  If you missed Lessons 1 and 2, see them at “The Man Who Sells the Moon” and “Thank You, Justin Bieber.”

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