An Effective Way of Planning a Language Course: The Principle of the Four Strands

Paul Nation 1What principles can we apply to foreign language curriculum design to make learning effective? This is the main question discussed in this post by Professor Paul Nation,  a leading language teaching methodology and vocabulary acquisition linguist researcher.

Paul Nation is Emeritus Professor in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. After the communicative approach of the 80’s, his work has been instrumental for second language courses design and current teaching methods, relying mainly on fast vocabulary acquisition of frequent words.

I have found his work most helpful for designing Spanish courses and vocabulary teaching and learning activities, and I am grateful that he has agreed to answer one of the most critical questions that teachers face when teaching language courses.

Enjoy the post!     

An Effective Way of Planning a Language Course: The Principle of the Four Strands

A teacher’s main jobs, in order of importance, are (1) to plan a good course (the most important job), (2) to organize learning opportunities both in and outside the classroom, (3) to train learners in language learning strategies so that they are encouraged to be independent in their learning, (4) to test learners to make sure that they are making progress and that they know how well they are doing, and finally, the least important but still important job, (5) to teach.

I want to talk briefly here about the most important job, planning a course. A very simple way to plan a course is to apply the principle of the four strands. This principle says that a well-balanced course has four equal strands of meaning-focused input (learning through listening and reading), meaning-focused output (learning through speaking and writing), language-focused learning, and fluency development. Each strand should occupy one quarter of the total course time. Each lesson does not need to be divided into the four strands, but over the period of a few weeks each strand should get roughly equal time including homework.

The strands are applied through language teaching techniques. The meaning-focused input strand is applied through extensive reading and extensive listening. The meaning-focused output strand can be applied through conversation activities, talks, writing assignments and diary writing. The language-focused learning strand can be applied through learning vocabulary through bilingual flashcards, intensive reading, strategy development, pronunciation practice, spelling practice, and grammar teaching. The fluency development strand is applied through activities like 4/3/2, listening to stories, speed reading and 10 minute writing. For a description of these activities and the four strands see Nation (2013). For an example of how the four strands can be applied to the learning of Spanish without a teacher see Nation and Yamamoto (2012).

paul-nationThe way to check if you are applying the four strands principle is to keep a record of the activities you use in your course and how much time you spend on each activity. Classify the activities into the four strands and then add up the time for each strand. If there is not roughly equal time for each strand then, work out what activities you need to add or spend more time on, and decide what activities you will stop using or spend less time on. My guess is that you will find that you spend too much time on language-focused learning (deliberate teaching and learning) and not enough time on truly communicative input and output.

I worked out the idea of the four strands about twenty years ago and since then have applied it to the teaching and learning of vocabulary and to language curriculum design. It is a fairly simple idea but applying it can have very positive effects on your language course.

Happy teaching!

Paul Nation Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

What every EFL teacher should know_


Nation, P. (2013). What should every EFL teacher know? Seoul: Compass Publishing. (Available through

Nation, I. S. P., & Yamamoto, A. (2012). Applying the four strands to language learning. International Journal of Innovation in English Language Teaching and Research, 1(2), 167-181.

More resources 

The full list of publications by  Professor Paul Nation can be found in his webpage:

Videos of interviews and a lecture :

a) Discussing the future of education and the problems of holding onto specific methodologies and approaches

b) Answering the question: How does extensive graded reading help vocabulary learning?

c) Lecture on vocabulary and intensive reading

¡Espero que os haya gustado el post!

Un cordial saludo,

María Blanco Hermida

Director & Spanish Language Coach

SMART-Learning for Spanish 


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