I am positive that everyone knows the famous LEGO bricks. Not only children, but also adults. And I also believe we can all agree they are really a unique tool which opens the door to child’s creativity.
How about if I told you that words can have exactly the same purpose as building bricks? You have billions of them and you can put them together in so many different ways to build either a simple collocation or a magnificent piece of work like ‘The Game of Thrones’. On the other hand, they may become absolutely meaningless and boring on their own. Because, words are originally meant as a tool with which you have to DO something or else they soon become an object of no interest/meaning.
Looking at the words from this perspective and putting them in a classroom environment, we can see many ways of how practitioners could present them to their children. Most often, specially with young learners, the words are presented as nothing more than building bricks at which they are looked at from different angles and later they are discarded.
Let me present it more practically.
There is a coursebook that covers some topics. The coursebook is a box in which some building bricks (words) are hidden. There is a limited number of bricks for each topic (words), with which children can build. Most often, this box of bricks, for early language learning (coursebooks, workbooks), contains only the basic bricks (nouns, maybe some verbs and occasional adjectives), but offers no instruction (ways, methodology) of how those bricks could be put together and built into a meaningful toy (sentence, collocation, phrase). Moreover, there are an abundance of exercises and working sheets which make children look at those bricks from left and right, and occasionally from above. (For example: “Colour or circle the picture that corresponds with the word ‘book’.”, or “Connect the words to the correct illustration.”; or more challenging one “Group the words together by their colour”, etc.)
Those exercises in those books have pre-determined answers and most often there is only one right solution. (Convergent thinking which enhances no creativity.)
Looking at those words from different perspective can hold only so much children’s interest to see whether they understand them or not. And then, according to most programmes, they're done with them.
Far more sophisticated box of words can be offered through a story (picture books for young learners). Children are enthusiastic about a story, because it actually presents a castle built of bricks. In other words, the words are presented in their meaningful purpose. (What children see is a purpose (the story, that is!), not the words themselves). And what happens next? For children, most often a disappointing continuance of such a promising start: the demolishing of the story into individual words and looking at them from different angles through exercises described above.
The approach, presented and described in the article ‘Making Early Language Learning Effective’, and the seminars ‘Playing games is a serious business!’, and ‘Visual grammar’ shows how a sophisticated box of bricks (a story) can be demolished into smaller set of bricks and then put together into a new creation (games, visual story, texts etc.). In that way, children are subconsciously exposed to set of bricks (words, collocations or phrases) and thus learn them in their ‘natural environment’.