Bill VanPatten

Another Nail in the Grammarian and Communicative Coffin

I was Twarguing recently with a District colleague.  “Grammar feedback and direct instruction in the language classroom are pointless,” I said.
“I don’t believe it,” she said.

This is a pretty classic argument between a T.P.R.S. practitioner and a traditionalist.  Fortunately, science doesn’t care whether or not we “believe” it, so our argument, as we shall see, has been mostly settled for us by VanPatten, Keating and Leeser.

Let’s prep our brains for this.  Here we go:

Sentence A:  “Chris is brewing beer in Vancouver on Saturday.”

Sentence B:  “Chris in Squamish rock-climbing is on Sunday.”

Which took you longer to understand?  Which made you momentaraily go “huh?”  I bet it was B.

Because, as egg-heads and linguists say, “you have acquired a well-developed mental representation of English,” sentence B takes you a half-second more to read than A, and it takes you a couple of microseconds longer to answer Question B than Question A.  You probably noticed your brain going “no, wait, sentence B should be __________” i.e. “re-thinking” the sentence properly.  This is what the brain that has fully acquired English does.

Now here’s another example.  In Hindi, khanna means “food” and he means “there is.”

Sentence C:  Khanna he?

Sentence D: He khanna?

You probably figured out that both questions mean “is there food?”  Did one take you longer to read than the other, or to figure out?  Probably not.  Now, here’s the thing.  Sentence D is wrong.  If you are a native speaker of Hindi, you read D and briefly went “huh?”  You understood it both ways, but your processing speed differed depending on whether or not your Hindi was later-learned or acquired as your/a first language.

This, it turns out, is standard experience with L1.  If the vocabulary and grammar have been acquired, and the sentence makes sense, grammatical errors will make us measurably slow down in our reading and question-answering.  In other words, if we really have the language acquired– wired in– we will slow down slightly when processing errors in the language.  If we have acquired it less thoroughly, we will get the meaning but our processing will not slow when there are word order or  grammatical issues.

This is why you can read Noam Chomsky’s famous sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and it won’t intuitively “feel” or “sound” weird, despite obviously being nonsensical (like Lewis Carrol’s “’twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”).

It turns out that measuring processing speed is a pretty good way to figure out how well someone has acquired mental representation of a language.  If we process errors slowly, it shows that we have the language “wired in,” and if we process them quickly (or don’t process them at all), we have not yet acquired mental representation of the part of the language being looked at.

Bill VanPatten and crew asked two interesting questions in an experiment detailed here:

a) Do native (L1) speakers of Spanish “slow down” processing different types of errors?

b) Do non-native (L2) Spanish speakers slow down equally for different types of errors?

They exposed Spanish L1s and L2s to Spanish sentences with three types of errors:  wh- question, adverb placement, and verb conjugation errors.

With verb conjugation, where one should say la chica juega fútbol (the girl plays soccer), subjects read errors such as  *la chica juego fútbol (the girl I play soccer).

With adverb placement, where one should say Juan no viaja más a Francia porque no tiene dinero (Juan no longer goes to France because he has no money), subjects read *Juan no más viaja a Francia porque no tiene dinero.  Note here that the errors follow English word order.

The question-word errors involved sentences like ¿dónde comen tus padres cuando hacen visita a Chicago? (Where do your parents eat when they visit Chicago?) and *¿dónde tus padres comen cuando hacen visita a Chicago?  Again, the error sentences follow English word order.

Note that both correct and incorrect sentences where possible use the same number of words and the same words.

VanPatten, Keating and Leeser showed the subjects sentences (some with errors, some normal) on the computer screen, followed by a question.  The computer timed from when they saw the sentence to when they entered an answer, and then showed them the next question.  The focus here was not getting the right answer (it was basically impossible to get a wrong answer) but rather on seeing how long it took people to process grammatical and ungrammatical sentences.

It had been hypothesised that the L1s would process Spanish errors of any type at the same speed, because their mental representation of Spanish is so solid that any error would stick out.  This turned out to be the case.  L1s– native Spanish speakers– processed  conjugation, question word and adverb placement errors at the same speed.  For the L2s, things were quite different.

Verb conjugation had been (repeatedly) addressed in the college students’ Spanish classes. There had been explicit instruction and explanations, practice, listening, reading etc, all of which used verb conjugation as focus– both direct and implied (implicit)– of instruction.  Using adverbial phrases– e.g. saying “no longer” (no…más)– as well as question formation had been regularly  present in reading & listening, but had not been explicitly dealt with.

What VanPatten, Keating and Leeser found was that there were significant differences in L2s’ processing speed depending on the error type in the sentence.  For the verb conjugation error sentences, the L2 group– despite having been taught, and having read and ‘practiced’ it– did not slow down in their processing.  With the adverb placement and question-word error sentences, the L2 group– despite not having been ‘taught’ or having ‘practiced’ them— slowed down processing markedly.  If they slowed down processing, that meant they had developed a mental representation thereof, and if they did not slow down processing it, they had not (yet) acquired mental representation of the item in question.

In other words, the L2s had acquired a solid mental representation of adverb phrase placement and question word usage despite not having been explicitly taught them, and they had failed to develop a solid mental representation ofverb conjugation despite having been taught it and having practiced it.

You probably want to re-read that last paragraph.  Let’s rephrase: people acquired things from the Spanish input which they weren’t explicitly taught and had not practiced, and they did not acquire other things from the Spanish input which they were taught and had practiced.  As VanPatten wrote me– echoing Krashen of 35 years prior– “the research on effects of instruction consistently fails to show any effect for [on] the implicit system,” and this study shows exactly that.

Let’s rephrase again:  you can teach– and “practice”– all the ______ you want, but people are not going to pick up on ____ if  their brains are not ready for it. 

The implications are staggering, and here they are in no particular order.

First, textbooks are at best irrelevant and at worst an active and expensive impediment to learning.  Sequenced grammar, as I have argued, not only makes language acquisition boring, but is ineffective.   Why?

  • We do not learn grammar as “units” or “skill sets.”  There is no mental “unit” called “the -ar verb” or “indirect object pronouns.”
  • students do not acquire grammar on a teacher or book-dictated schedule
  • As Vanpatten, Long, Krashen etc note, we do not acquire what textbooks present as “rules.”  What we call “rules” are surface descriptions of very complex subconscious processes.
  • as Susan Gross has pointed out, people may well be ready for input that the text does not present, and not ready for what it is showing us.

Second, this study suggests that teaching with fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 is the way to go.   In other words, all grammatical structures– verb tenses, pronouns, moods, what have you, no matter how “complex” or “advanced” or “un-L1-like” they may appear from the traditionalist’s perspective– should be present in input as soon as learners begin acquiring the language. As Susan Gross has argued, and as Long (1997) says, “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.”  In addition, if there as an un-L1-like feature in the L2 (e.g. the Spanish subjunctive for English L1 speakers), it may require more processing practice– input– than supposedly “L1-like” features…and should therefore be present sooner.

This being the case, using sheltered grammar– what all textbooks do when they leave “advanced stuff” like the subjunctive for later– is wrong, because it

  • denies the brain at least some of the input it needs
  • overemphasises at least some what the brain is not ready for

Eric Herman points out that this is a logical, but not an empirical, argument for unsheltered grammar, noting that we would need to study under what conditions– unsheltered or sheltered input– better mental representation appears.  My gut feeling (and classroom experience) is that unsheltered instruction will develop better mental representation, but more slowly than sheltered, as there is a greater variety of syntax etc to soak up.

Third, this puts a massive hole into any kind of proficiency level system which is tied to specific grammar or vocabulary.  Most assessment systems in traditional textbooks– the typical end-of-chapter reading, listening, writing etc tests– are invalid.  Sure, kids can consciously wrestle with verb conjugations or pronouns or whatever by “studying hard” the night before the test, and on test day they say “hurry let’s do the exam before we forget,” and they are right– they immediately forget whatever they’ve memorised.  However, vocab-and-grammar-specific tests often

  • do not assess proficiency of what kids actually know
  • assess proficiency of things kids may not be ready for

If your State, District, school etc says, for example, “French Level 2s must know how to conjugate verbs using être in the passé composé,” they are flat-out wrong-headed.  Kids should be exposed to verbs using être in the passé composé (if the input is comprehensible and interesting), and it is certainly appropriate to expect them to understand, but forcing them to use these (especially in idiotic discrete-item grammar tests) is wrong.

It is also wrong to ask students to output specific features of language in a test situation.  While the brain can recognise the meaning of things it has not acquired, asking it to output these things properly is asking the impossible.  So a writing or speaking exercise which says “you must use the verb ___, the following nouns, etc, in your dialogue, paragraph etc,” is bad practice.  This is when you get kids writing “yo tener divertido” or “je suis quinze ans.”

Fourth, the most obvious lesson here is that teachers are wasting their time with grammar lessons, explanations and practice.  The brain is going to pick up what it wants only when it wants.  While obviously teachers should answer grammar questions, and explicitly deal with grammar to support meaning (e.g. by saying “in French, the –ons on aimer means ‘we,’ and goes with nous“), anything else is a waste of time.  Ditch those stupid fill-in-the-blank workbooks.

Fifthif grammar lessons– and teaching that organises curriculum around grammar– do not deliver the wanted results, the question of “what should we be teaching?” arises.  The answer, I think, is threefold:

  • multidimensional language (a.k.a. unsheltered grammar) with “everything” in the mix
  • compelling comprehensible input which will keep learners focused (and therefore acquiring)
  • vocabulary beginning with more frequently-used and moving toward lower frequency

I’d urge people to look at Wiktionary’s frequency lists and note that, in terms of the most commonly-used  words, all grammar is present.  It’s not like the subjunctive is seldom (or later)- used in Spanish or French.  Indeed, the typical order of presentation of grammar in textbooks– numbers=> present tense=> past tense=> subjunctive– is backwards to how often these features are used in languages.

Sixth, activities which focus students on input of language– reading and listening– will be more effective than those involving grammar manipulation, output, etc.  If a teacher notes that students have not acquired ____, reading/listening to a ton of input that contains ____ would be the best bet…but, as VanPatten et al show, it’s no guarantee they’ll pick it up when you want them to.  We do know that if they understand, they are acquiring…just not necesarily on the teacher’s schedule.

Seventh, there is news for “communicative” teachers, who like having students use the target language to exchange information: it will be almost impossible to have students generate accurate language either to make questions or to respond to them.  Why?  Because– by definition– what a ‘communicative’ teacher is asking a student to do is the thing they do not know how to do. If the experimental subjects had not developed mental representation of verb conjugation after competent native speaker and textual exposure to it, how can we expect students to acquire (say) verb conjugation by both doing it and getting poor input from other learners?  As Bill VanPatten puts it on his podcast, “asking students to produce what they are trying to acquire is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse.”

OK, there we go.  People’s brains, not their teachers, set the acquisitional agenda.  Let’s respect that by providing good comprehensible input, not insisting that students master the passé composé by November 27th at 2:43 PM, and not harping about grammar.


Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?

How does Bill VanPatten describe how we acquire language?

Linguistics is a rabbit-hole second only to Hegelian philosophy in terms of depth and complexity.  You can move down there and spend the rest of your life looking at cross-clause meaning transfers, lexical ambiguities and other odd denizens who like the Cheshire Cat are easy to visualise and often impossible to grasp.

Fortunately, amateur geeks like Eric Herman and I, and a few pros like Bill VanPatten and Mr Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen, are here to make sense of the research so that the rest of us can look at thirty kids and pull off meaningful, acquisition-building activities.

Today, a brief run-through answering the question what actually happens in language acquisition?

Well, to put it simply, we start with linguistic data (words spoken or written).  This just means language with an intent to communicate meaning.  If it is comprehensible, or partly comprehensible, the language gets “scanned” by the aspect of the brain that we could loosely call “the input processor.”  This input “must come from others,” as VanPatten says.

This processor does a bunch of stuff.  It first looks for meaning, and it does that by looking at what Bill VanPatten informally labels “big words” such as nouns and verbs, and then adverbs and adjectives.  While the input processor is Mainly looking for meaning, it is also looking at a bunch of other data.  How do the words in question relate in terms of meaning to other words?  How do they sound?  Where do they go in the sentence?  How do they change when said/written in a sentence?  What are tone and speaker’s intent?  (there are other data the processor looks for too).  It’s important to note that the only thing the input processor can process is language.  It cannot process images, any kind of explicit rules, or incomprehensible input.

This point is absolutely crucial. A teacher can explain, say, verb conjugation or pronouns or whatever up the yin-yang, but this information cannot become part of acquired competence.  As VanPatten argues, echoing Krashen, any kind of conscious awareness of grammar etc rules is only useful if the learner

  1. knows the rule.
  2. knows how to use the rule
  3. has time to recall, apply and use the rule.

The processor kicks sorted data (or, more accurately, information derived from sorted data) upstairs to Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” which runs “software” called “universal grammar.”  The U.G. does a bunch of stuff to the sorted data, with which it starts building what VanPatten calls “mental representation of language.”  All this big fancy-schmancy term means is, unconsciously getting it, and having an unconscious “language blueprint” or “language software.”  Mental representation is like using the Force: when you have it, things just flow.  Do, or do not– there is no try.  And by “getting it,” we basically mean two things:

a) understanding the language

b) knowing what is grammatically OK and what is not.

You, the reader, have a very well-developed mental representation of English.  You just know–but probably can’t explain why— that you can enjoy running, but that you cannot enjoy to run, and that you can untie your laces, but you cannot unsleep.  You also know that “does John live here?” is OK but “lives John here?” or “lives here John?” is not.

As mental representation develops, output potential emerges.  The more meaningful input we get, the more we process language, build mental representation, and thereby start being able to “spit out” first words, then phrases, and finally progressively more complex sentences.  There is in fact an order of appearance of rules in organic, unforced output (what people can do without any teacher or written prompting).  This is briefly detailed in VanPatten’s 2003 book From Input to Output.

So, recap: comprehensible language comes in, is parsed (sorted) by processor, goes to universal grammar, which only via linguistic input builds a progressively more complex “mental representation” of language, which as it develops will permit first understanding and then output of gradually increasing complexity.

Here is how VanPatten describes it in an email:

“I use the metaphor of a grocery checkout. The cash register computer is the mind/brain.  The bar codes on the product is the input. And the red light scanner is the input processor.

[Note: in this case, the cash register develops a “mental representation” of your grocery bills– scanner codes plus $$ amounts– from the moment it begins scanning]

The scanner can only read bar codes. It cannot read pictures, labels, rings on a can, signs, and so on.  And the computer can only receive what the red scanner delivers to it as data. It cannot read the bar codes but instead the processed information processed by the scanner. 

Language acquisition is the same.  Only input is useful for the input processor, not knowledge about language or practice. And the mind/brain needs the processed input data in order to build a linguistic system. All components in both systems are dedicated to specific activities and act on only certain kinds of info.”

Take a minute and re-read that.  Good.  Now, read it again.

It is also important to note a few other things that VanPatten (and Krashen) have said:

First, there are “working memory” bandwidth limits which come into play during input.  Not everyone can “hold in their head” the same amount of info, and too much info renders the input processor useless.

Second, there is an “order of attention,” so to speak, of what the input processor pays attention to.  At the beginning stages of acquisition, it processes “big words”– nouns, verbs etc– and only once these “make sense” can the brain sort through things like verb endings, articles, gender etc.  Basically, the brain is going to pay attention to the most important aspects of input first.

We know this because, for example, when we teach a relative beginner, say, habla (speaks) in Spanish, the learner will probably be able to tell you quite quickly what habla means (or close to it), but be unable to explain that the -a ending means “he” or “she.”  This does not mean that the brain is not registering that -a, or anything else, but rather that its main focus is on first “big meaning” and only later on inflections etc.

Finally, teachers need to ensure that learners process L2-unique grammar properly.  VanPatten’s work on processing instruction– getting people to not screw up interpretation– looks at things like this sentence in Spanish:  A la mujer vio el hombre  (“the man saw the woman”).  In English, this literally translates as “to the woman saw the man,” and English speakers tend to interpret it as “the woman saw the man.”  Some “focus on form,” as Long calls it, is necessary to make sure that learners don’t develop “bad processing” habits.

The one thing VanPatten’s metaphor does not do is explain how much repetition the brain needs to acquire something.  In the case of the cash register, all it needs is one bit of data from the scanner and its “mental representation” of the pile of groceries– an itemised bill– grows.  In language, however, the U.G. works by hypthesis testing.  Data comes in, partial rules are formed, and the system waits for confirmation or denial of rule.  So the U.G. needs LOADS of data.

Consider this.  Habla means “s/he speaks” in Spanish.  Now, here are a bunch of possible ways to use habla:

1. Juan habla con sus amigos.

2. ¿Habla o quiere hablar con sus amigos Juan? 

3. ¿No habla Juan?  Juan no habla.

4. Cuando se pone enjojado, ¿habla o grita Juan?

5. ¿Quién habla con Martina—Juan o Antonio?

Every time habla is said here, a slightly different set of meanings, grammar rules, positions in sentence, intonations, etc etc, are in play.  It is not enough for the brain to simply know what habla means.  It has to see/hear habla associated with other words and sounds, doing different jobs in different places, etc.  Indeed, a word is not a thing, but a cluster of relational properties which changes in contexts.

Consider this.   ¿Habla con sus amigos Juan?  This means “does Juan talk with his friends?” and literally “talks with his friends Juan?”  The U.G. will build a number of hypotheses here, which will look (to us from the outside– what the brain actually does looks….different) like “where does the subject in a question go?  Hypothesis: the end” and “why does sus have an -s?  Hypothesis: -s is for plural adjectives.”  The next time data comes in, the U.G. will test its hypotheses and if they are confirmed, that bit of neural wiring gets reinforced.

This– among other reasons– is why output, grammar instruction and drills simply do not develop linguistic competence, or mental representation. There are too many rules which are too complex and subtle for the conscious mind, and acquisition can only happen through meaningful, varied input over time.  Grammar instruction– like grapefruits, music and pictures– cannot be processed by the input processor, output is not hypothesis formation (though it may generate input on which the processor and U.G. can operate), and drills of any kind at best offer dull, impoverished input.

The upshot?  VanPatten’s metaphor flat out tells us

  • there will be no meaningful language development without oceans of comprehensible input
  • anything other than comprehensible input– grammar rules and practice, output, ambiguity– does not help develop mental representation
  • if there is a place in the classroom for grammar talk, is is this: we should discuss grammar ONLY insofar as such discussions support accurate meaning. Anything other than, say, “-aste or -iste mean you did ___ in the past” are useless.

How Badly Did I Fail Teaching Languages? (1)

I have been reflecting on my teaching and I thought I would share my many screw-ups, and offer some better alternatives (which might be useful for teachers who use textbook programs and are getting frustrated).  So here we go– today’s question–

Q: How– and how badly– did I screw up teaching languages?

A: Pretty badly– and here is how 

 1. I used grammar worksheets and explicit grammar practice to “teach grammar.” The programs I used– first ¡Díme! and then Juntos— had a lot of these.  Fill in the blanks with the correct verbform, pronoun, or word, etc. The research about this is clear: a grammar item is acquired when the learner has heard loads of comprehensible input containing the item/rule in question, AND when their brain is “ready” to pick it up.   If a learner hasn’t acquired it, they aren’t ready for it.  If they have, there’s little point in practicing. Truscott writes that “no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught” (and practiced) and VanPatten says that “tenses are not acquired as “units” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

“Conscious awareness” of grammar rules (as Krashen points out) only helps us if ALL of the following conditions are met:

1.  we know the rule

2. we know how to apply the rule

3.  we have time to consciously reflect on and apply the rule

So, if students have worksheets or whatever where they are “practising the passé composé” or whatever, they’ll do well.  They’ll beaver away, slowly, filling in the blanks.  Of course, in real life, they won’t have time to go “hmm, is that a DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb?  Oh, it is, so, let’s see, how do we conjugate that?” Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time.” Worksheets cannot help those who havn’t acquired a grammar rule; they are unnecessary for those who have. And they’re boring.

Doing it betterI would have kids read a ton of stuff which has the grammar item, etc, they are learning.  If I had worksheets, a better way to use them would be to give the kids the worksheets with the blanks filled in and have them translate:  this is quality (if boring) input.


2.  I used to do projects in the target language.   One typical one:  the ____ report.  Research ___, write up what you learned about ____ on a poster and add some pictures and lines connecting different elements.  Oh, and do it in Spanish.  Then read it aloud to the class.  Variations: use the Interwebz and add things that talk, move, have colours, etc.  The only problems were…

  • the kids had to look up a ton of vocab (read: Google translate)
  • almost none of this vocab got repeated for the rest of the year (read: little acquisition)
  • most of the writing had to be “edited” (read: totally re-written) by me before the final product was assembled.
  • most of the audience focused on pictures and missed most of the target language during the presentation because the presenters are the only ones who know the vocab, and the audience wanted to understand, and pictures were easier to understand.
  • if done in poster form, nobody except me, the teacher, ever read the Spanish, and a week after it was done, not even the kids who wrote the poster typically what it meant because all they did was copy it down
  • most of the Spanish on these was low-frequency vocab.  How often is somebody going to need to say “principal exports of ___ are petroleum and fried dog” or “The Cathedral of was built in ____”?

Now, kids did pick up a bit of vocab– and culture knowledge– but at the cost of good input.

Doing it better: I now do culture, etc, projects in English.  I can  get higher-order thinking, more learning-via-sharing, and less energy wasted on poor target language use.  Plus, the kids can easily understand each others’ work.


3.  I “used games” to “make grammar and learning fun.  From class soccer leagues to Hangman to cross-4, games got the kids focused and they found them fun.  Too bad, however, that

  • most of their output was flawed and/or English, and that therefore
  • they got little accurate input, and
  • the language they were exposed to was fragmented (ie generally not sentences which were part of bigger meaningful “whole” passages or conversations
  • they got low-frequency vocab.  E.g. the class soccer/hockey/baseball game.  Lots of fun, shouting, etc…but words like “scores” and “goal” and “foul” are not much-used.


4.  I didn’t know what I was doing with assessment.

a) I screwed up listening assessment.  In every languages program I have ever seen, the listening test at the end of each unit has something like, it  plays a native speaker saying something, or a conversation.  Then, there are multiple-guess questions  Why was this a problem for my kids?

  • the kids had to “hold” quite a lot of vocab in their heads while listening to (say) 60 seconds of language.  This is very hard to do.
  • The pattern was clear:  if the speaker(s) said it, the kids picked that as the answer.  If the statement was more complex– eg John was not tired– and the question was How did John feel? a) tired b) awake c) energetic, the kids would pick a, because thinking about “not” and the meaning of the word tired is cognitive overload for a lot of them.

Doing it better:  Give them WAY more time, restrict vocab to only what they know, and provide aural input much more slowly.  I would also now suggest using aural input as listen, copy and translate.

b) I screwed up writing assessment.  Yes, I had a marking rubric (thanks, Julia Macrae), which worked fine for paragraphs.  However, what do you do with single-sentence questions?  For example, a question would be ¿Te gustan los perros? (Do you like dogs?).  If a kid wrote me gusta los perros, or yo gusto las gatos (both of which demonstrate understanding of meaning, but which have basic grammar errors), how do you mark it?  Half a mark off for the mistake?  1/4?  How do you do holistic assessment for a sentence?  Impossible.

Doing it better: Now, I make them write only paragraphs and stories and assess holistically.  I check for understanding when I am asking stories, or while we are reading.


5.  I used to expect oral output from Day 1.  I used to do a lot of “communicative pair” or “information gap” activities.  The problems here were many:

  • the kids would always make output mistakes– e.g. they would have a list of things or activities, and they would have to ask their partner about them.  So, dogs.  A kid would say  ¿Te gusta el perros?  and get the answer No yo gusto perros— which was meaningful, but very low-quality input for their partners.  If this is where their language modeling came from, I realised eventually that there would be huge problems.  They would not acquire articles, verb endings etc properly.
  • I felt like a cop, cruising around the class to ensure Spanish compliance.  As one person I talked to said, “speaking ____ with other people who are also learning it feels fake.”  Kids simply felt funny using the language.
  • the logical thing to do is to get the info as easily and quickly as possible, i.e. L1, whose use was a constant problem.
  • the activities in books were dull:  ask your partner if s/he a) went to the beach b) played soccer, c) had a BBQ last summer.  I dunno about you but I and the kids don’t find that compelling.

Doing it better:   I don’t do any forced oral activities and end-of-course assessment with beginners.  I do one totally random three-minute oral interview with 2nd and up level kids at the end of level 2.  The kids do have to chorally answer story questions, and I will ask superstars personalised questions in the PQA (personalised questions and answers) process (basically, asking the superstars the questions I ask the actors).  This has allowed me to deliver much more– and better– input, partly because I am not spending 6-8 blocks/year assessing output, and because the output they do– acting in stories, and superstar PQA– is super high quality (and so is good input) for other learners.

Now, when I have kids who are reluctant to talk, I ask them yes/no or one-word PQA questions.  If we are doing a story and I say a la chica, le gustaban los gatos, I’ll first circle that, and then I’ll ask the actress ¿te gustan los gatos?  and a few other questions involving gustan and los gatos, los perros, los dinosaurios, etc.  Then, I ask my superstar or a native speaker ¿te gustan los gatos?  and they can answer with a complete sentence.  Then, I go to the slower processors (or shyer kids) and ask the same question.  They can say sí/no and that’s fine, or they can say a complete sentence.  The point now is to deliver input, not to force output, and to use output to signal understanding.

I also no longer do communicative pair activities.  Kids now pick up Q&A (first and second person) forms (and everything else) through PQA and stories.


6.  I used to do kid-created target-language movie projects.   Typically, I said “make a short film of ___,” ___ being either some thematic vocab (e.g. the food or shopping unit) or this plus some specific grammar requirements (e.g. use the imparfait).  Now, these are fun.  My daughters also did them, and when they did, I’ve never at my house seen five teenagers spend so much intense time rehearsing, giggling, planning, etc.  However…

  • the target language output was bad.  They’re learners.
  • most of the time spent making a film was in English.
  • most of the energy, mental and otherwise, spent in making the film was fixed on visuals, acting, bloopers, editing, etc
  • when they watched each others’ films in class, mostly they could not hear or understand the Spanish…because most of the Spanish had been special-occasion looked-up just for the film, and because the sound was bad
  • because the kids KNEW that the story must be primarily visually told, and they would film/edit for visual comprehension, viewers didn’t really need to pay attention to target language.
  • even the understood good target language was often not repeated much throughout the year (low frequency).

In retrospect, movie projects did get the kids talking, and they were fun.  But they didn’t deliver the sine qua non of good languages teaching: delivering compelling comprehensible input.

Doing it better:  Thanks to Adriana Ramírez, I now do this.  Provide the kids a script of 100% comprehensible vocab– including dialogue, with errors edited out– and have them film it.  They will have a blast filming (picking costumes, editing, hanging out with their buddies, adding music etc).  When you show it in class, they will be intrigued to see their friends acting, and they will not even notice that they are hearing and understanding the target language.

7. I used to give grammar tests.  Read the sentence and fill in the blanks with the right ____.  Conjugate the verb.  Show me where the pronoun goes. The research is clear:  grammar instruction works wonders if you want your students to become manipulators of grammar.  However, the part of the brain that stores “metalinguistic awareness” stuff like grammar rules is at best tangentially connected to the subconscious part that actually processes language.  The researchers all say the same thing: the brain does not acquire grammar by practicing grammar, and what we teachers call “grammar rules” is not how the brain “does” grammar.  So, making kids study for tests that ask them to consciously manipulate words and apply grammar rules took away from real, deep processing that happens when they hear or read stories or other meaningful language.


Doing it better: assess whole-language use (read, listening to and writing real meaningful stuff) and just, well, don’t give grammar tests.  If you really want to ensure that the kids learn to conjugate, use pronouns, etc, make them do a lot of reading.

8. I used to do the portfolio.  Kids take evidence of what they do– writing, reports, videos or oral presentations, tests and quizzzes, etc, and stick them in a folder called a “portfolio.”  Modern versions include online collections (e.g. you video your restaurant unit dialogue and put it on Youtube).  The rationale for portfolios is a) kids can “reflect on their learning, document  areas of growth and areas that need work” or some such edubabble, and b) kids can go and revise stuff and c) they can see what they did and learn from their mistakes.

First, (b) I agree with– you learned more, go fix it, good.  But, second, we run into a problem with A and C, because, basically, most adolescents simply cannot reflect on something as (1) complex and (2) innate as grammar etc.  Most of them can’t do it in English with essays/paragraphs etc, so how can we expect them to do it in a second language?  As an English teacher who teaches lit and composition to English speakers in English, I know that kids cannot meaningfully self-edit.  They also mostly cannot peer edit.  Yes, you can give them checklists…and they will look for– and sometimes even find– things on the checklists…and miss everything else.  And this is in English, their first language.  I used to provide Spanish grammatical feedback, the kids would dutifully re-copy their paragraphs and “improve them” and then they would make exactly the same mistakes on tests.

You can talk about ____ till you are blue in the face, but most kids just can’t do it.  They also don’t care– I mean, what student in their right mind would care how many of the 19 irregular passé composé verbs they don’t know or whatever?  That’s boring.  Also, I would give kids their writing back, correct the hell out of it, and they would look for how much red ink was on it, and what Number they got on it.  This is because they quite correctly understood that Numberz are what Matterz to Teacherz and Parentz.

Portfolios however look cool– especially if the student is a girl; girls in my experience are more into neatness and colouring and nice pictures than boys– and Thingz That Look Cool (extra Pointz if its online!  E-learningz!  Cross-platform sharingz!) get attention, Adminz and Headz love them, etc etc.  The only problem is, they don’t provide the acquisitional effects we expect.  The only thing a portfolio can do is show growth.  Kids will have 4-sentence paragraphs at start and 20 at end of a class.  Great, a teacher’s markbook should reflect that, throw the quiz in the kid’s binder, why waste time on packages and prettiness and empty self-analyses?


So…how has eliminating the screw-ups helped my kids?

My epiphany came thanks to Michelle Metcalfe’s demo workshop, and my results now blow the old results out of the water.  I have abandoned grammar practice and testing, communicative gap activities, oral output and most oral assessment, games, movie and culture projects in Spanish, and portfolios.

My Level 1 kids now write 600-1,00 word stories, in good Spanish, in multiple verb tenses, in an hour at the end of the course.  They understand everything they hear.  They feel great when they head somewhere Spanish-speaking.  I have no management issues. I have every kid who attends and pays attention passing.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  Mainly I am happy that I can experience more success with second languages and I hope I can inspire others to get there also (though not necessarily by doing what I do).  And I mean honestly people, I am neither smart nor talented so if I can do OK with T.P.R.S., anyone can do well.

The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and C.I. Instruction

Research shows that

  • languages are acquired only when people get aural or written comprehensible input
  • comprehensible reading in the target language improves acquisition a lot
  • grammar practice and explanations, most metacognition, performance feedback, and output are of minimal or no value
  • drills and any other kind of output practice don’t work
  • there are predictable, unavoidable, error-involving stages and sequences of acquisition of grammar which cannot be changed
  • learners’ speaking the target language does not help learners acquire it, and often slows acquisition
  • comprehensible input methods (including T.P.R.S., narrative paraphrase a.k.a. Movietalk, and free voluntary reading) do more for acquisition than legacy methods
  • despite superficial differences, children and adults learn languages in the same way

Here is the evidence supporting what we know about language acquisition.  Thanks to Eric Herman for digging a lot of this up, and thanks to Karen Lichtman, Bill VanPatten, Ray Hull, Stephen D. Krashen, Wynne Wong, Reed Riggs and Paul Nation for sending papers, comments, etc.

Want a live crash course in research?  See Bill VanPatten’s presentation (in 6 parts) here.  His weekly podcast is archived here.  Lance Pantagiani’s condensed Tea With BVP episodes are archived here. Sarah Cottrell’s Musicuentos podcasts are also worth a listen.

1) Should students be taught and practice specific grammar points?  NO.  Truscott reviews research and says that “overall the evidence against grammar
teaching is quite strong.”  Krashen annihilates the grammarians’ arguments here. Wong and VanPatten also dismiss the grammar-practice argument in Wong and Van Patten 2003: “The Evidence Is In: Drills Are Out,” and VanPatten, Keating & Leeser (2012) conclude that “things like person-number endings on verbs must be learnt from the input like anything else; they can’t be taught and practiced in order to build a mental representation of them” (see Wong and Van Patten 2003 the evidence isin drills are out).

VanPatten also notes that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and that “classroom rule learning is not the same as acquisition.” Lightbown writes that “structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation” (in VanPatten, 2004): in other words, explanations don’t aid acquisition (though some students may feel good getting them).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as VanPatten and Wong put it, that “learners– again, both in and out of the classroom– have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together.

VanPatten (2013) also echoes Susan Gross when he notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time.

In a fascinating study, Batterink & Neville (2013) found evidence that the “longstanding hypothesis is that syntactic processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, relying upon computational mechanisms that are autonomous and automatic” (what Krashen calls the Monitor model) is, in fact, correct.

2) How much vocabulary, grammar and general language skill do students pick up via free voluntary reading (FVR)? LOTS…and loads more than from direct instruction. There are estimates that readers acquire an average of a word every twenty minutes of FVR, that FVR works about twenty times as quickly as classroom instruction, and that 75% of an adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.  See Lehman (2007), summarised in IJFLTJuly07.  Additional free voluntary reading research is detailed on Krashen’s site and Japanese researcher Beniko Mason has also done a ton of good FVR research.  There is very good research on the Fijian Book Flood experiment detailed here, which shows, among other things, that some “focus on form”– grammar and writing feedback– is useful for second-language acquisition at later and higher levels, even while comprehensible input does 95% of the work and remains the sine qua non of language acquisition.  In a recent study (abstract here), non-native speakers of Spanish who had a Spanish reading habit had much greater vocabulary than native Spanish speakers who did not read.

VanPatten writes that “for maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).” Warwick Ely here examines free voluntary reading, grammar instruction, etc, and comes to the same conclusions that Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Lightbown & Spada etc do. Waring (2015) here makes the “inescapable case” for reading.  Mason and Krashen’s look at F.V.R. among Japanese learners of English showed significant positive effects.

Self-selected, comprehensible, interesting reading in the target (or native) language is boosts acquisition for the following reasons:
  • it delivers masses of comprehensible input
  • learners can pause, slow down, go back and seek extra (e.g. online or dictionary) help, which they cannot do nearly as well with a live speaker, and especially not with many native speakers (who often do not adjust vocabulary and speed to non-native-speakers’ needs)
  • readers can (and generally do) select books (input) tailored to their level
  • there is no output pressure, so the affective filter is low
  • for beginners, prosodic features like word differentiation are easier to see than to hear (but others, such as tone and accent, are harder to grasp)
  • the brain’s visual system is acute and, especially for monolinguals, better developed than the hearing processing system.

3) Do people acquire language via comprehensible input? YES. Krashen here summarises the comprehension hypothesis and destroys its rivals. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.”  Krashen also takes a look at savants, polyglots and ordinary folk who have learned languages via comprehensible input in this fascinating paper.  In a study of Spanish learners, comprehensible input teaching worked about six times as quickly as traditional instruction.  There is a great short comprehensible input demo by Krashen here, and here (starts at about 12:30) is a longer and more detailed lecture.

Krashen also lists the academic research supporting comprehensible input here.

Ashely Hastings’ “Focal Skills” program (which presents first aural (and video), then written comprehensible input before moving into writing and speaking), was designed for use in Uni classes, and is where what we call “Movietalk” came from.  The research on Focal Skills shows it much more effective than traditional present-and-practice approaches.

Karen Lichtman lists the T.P.R.S.-supportive research here.

4) Should we organise curriculum thematically?  NO.  Among other reasons, it turns out that it’s harder to remember clusters of similar vocab than collections of thematically disparate vocab. As Paul Nation writes, “research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, … shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as “clothes” or “chores”] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.” See Paul Nation on lexical sets and Rob Waring’s paper on vocab learning.

5) Should we “shelter” (limit) vocab?  YES. Evidence from children’s language acquisition suggests that we should, while “upping” prosodic variation (“wacky” or differentiated voices), reading rituals, and responses to student output (the paper is forthcoming). There is some processing research (VanPatten) that suggests that the amount of “mental energy” available for comprehension is limited, and that a minimal amount of new vocab be introduced in structured patterns over a broad overlay of well-known vocab, so that “mental energy” can be devoted to acquiring newer items. VanPatten: “any model of L2 input processing [must] consider in some way the impact of capacity issues in working memory on what learners can do at a given point in time.”  In other words, overload = bad.

Children also acquire vocabulary more quickly if it is “framed”: delivered in interactive, structured and limited speech-and-response sets (see chapter 10 of the interesting book Nurture Shock for details). It is estimated (Nation, 2006) that in most languages, the top 1000 most-frequently-used words account for about 85% of all oral language use, and the top 2000 for ~95%.  Best practice is probably to teach “along the frequency list” where the most emphasis is on words that are most used (with variations that cater to student needs and interests).

6) Do learners “learn” grammar that teachers “teach?”  Not on teachers’ or texts’ schedules.  VanPatten (2010) argues in this very comprehensive paper that “some domains [aspects of language acquisition] may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice [e.g.vocabulary], while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences [e.g. grammar].”  VanPatten, echoing Krashen, concludes that there is limited transfer of conscious knowledge “about” language into functional fluency and comprehension, and notes that “[n]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice” (2013).

Ellis (1993) says that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books, and not the syllabus.”

7) Should we use L1– the “mother tongue”– in class? YES, (albeit as little as possible), as Krashen notes, because this avoids both ambiguity AND incomprehensibility, neither of which  help acquisition. Here are some ideas about why L1 should be used in the languages classroom (Immersion teachers take note…all the _______ in the world won’t help kids who do not understand it).  Nation (2003) notes “There are numerous ways of conveying the meaning of an unknown word […] However, studies comparing the effectiveness of various methods for learning always come up with the result that an L1 translation is the most effective (Lado, Baldwin and Lobo 1967; Mishima 1967; Laufer and Shmueli 1997).”

8) Can we change the order of acquisition? NO. Krashen’s books have examples of order of acquisition. More recently, Lightbown and Spada (2013) reiterate Krashen’s contentions, showing how acquisition order of verb forms (in English-learning children) is fixed. Wong and VanPatten (2003) make the same point.  There is very little we can do to “speed up” acquisition of any “foreign” grammar rule (e.g. English speakers learning the Spanish subjunctive) or vocabulary, other than providing lots of comprehensible input that contains the rule in question.

VanPatten (2013) notes that instruction “does not alter the order of acquisition,” and Long (1997) says that “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” We also know that L2 mistakes are partially a function of L1, have partly to do with L1-L2 differences, but mostly to do with learners not being mentally ready to produce the new form (which is a result of a lack of input).

For example, L1 German learners of L2 French make mistakes with subject-verb inversion…despite German having exactly the same rule as French for s-v inversion.  Arika Okrent documents children’s L1 acquisition errors; note that errors 5-8 are also classic adult L2 acquisition errors (stages).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003)  put it, that “learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”  In Lightbown (1984), French-speaking students’ English output did not “match” the input they were given.  Students “do not simply learn linguistic elements as they are taught– adding them one after another in neat progession.  Rather, the students process the input in ways which are more “acquisition-like” and not often consistent with what the teacher intends for them to “learn”.”

9) Does correcting or properly re-stating learner mistakes–recasting– improve learner performance? NO. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) point out that while teachers like recasting (and do it a lot), and while students can and do immediately generate improved output as a result, “these interactions were not associated with improved performance on […] subsequent test[s].”  My view: if there is a place for recasts in the languages classroom, it is in ensuring that student output– which is also input for other students— is comprehensible and accurate.

10) Is there broad agreement among second-language-acquisition researchers about what constitutes effective practice? YES. In this paper, Ellis lays out the “ten principles” of second languages teaching.  He notes

  • comprehensible input is the sine qua non of second language acquisition
  • we must provide some “focus on form” (grammar explanations) to support meaning
  • there is no transfer from explicit knowledge of grammar to implicit language competence
  • the use of quite a lot of “formulaic” expressions– a.k.a. “lexical chunks”– is essential esp. for beginners
  • curricula organised along grammar sequential lines are probably not brain-friendly
  • instruction must primarily focus on meaning
  • drills don’t work
  • some output is necessary for acquisition in much later stages as this focuses learner attention on some aspects of form

S.L.A. researcher Patsy Lightbown here explains the “known facts” about second language acquisition.  Here is a video of S.L.A. research and what works/does not work by Bill VanPatten.

11) Do “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” exist?  NO.  In this paper, psychologist Daniel Willingham puts the boots to the idea that teachers need to kill themselves providing nineteen different ways to learn the verb “to run.”  While people often have preferences about learning, and while some people definitely have better skills in some areas than others, there is no evidence to suggest that language acquisition is positively affected by anything other than the presence of masses of comprehensible input, and the absence of counterproductive activities (grammar practice, forced output, grammar lectures, etc).

VanPatten has said that “No research has found a link between learning styles and individual differences on the one hand, and on the other the processes involved in language acquisition.

12) Do students like speaking in a second-language class?  Generally, no.  Krashen first made this point, and Baker and MacIntyre note that “Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication,” (references to Maclntyre & Gardner (1991) and McCroskey & Richmond (1987)) and also note that production anxiety in classes is high among non-Immersion students.

Best practice is probably to let those want to, talk, and to delay any output for others while asking them to signal comprehension or lack thereof (as natural approach, A.I.M., Narrative Paraphrase and T.P.R.S. do).

13)  Does speaking improve acquisition?  NO.  Despite (a few) studies which try to make the case for output, there isn’t a strong one. See Krashen’s response to one such study here, and his examination of Swain’s output hypothesis– and the research testing it– here. In another study, English-speaking students were taught Spanish structures (subjunctive and conditional) via various mixes of input and practice output. In this study, students who

  • got input only did very well
  • got input and did limited output (“practise”) did no better than input-only students
  • did more output (“practise”) than getting input did significantly worse than those who got more input.

Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that “[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

VanPatten also says that when “mechanical drills attempt to get the learner to acquire the thing they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse,” and notes that “research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.

14) Should we speak s.l.o.w.l.y. in class? YES. Audiologist Ray Hull writes  “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” Adult native-language output is 170-180 words per minute, so slowness is essential (for all teachers, not just those of languages).  Note that there is no way to speed up auditory processing speed.

15) Do learners need many repetitions of vocab items to acquire them? YES.  In this study, scientists concluded that 160 repetitions of an item resulted in new items being “wired in” like older (or L1) items.  However, acquisition rates vary and depends on various factors:  is the word an L1 cognate?  Is it being used comprehensibly?  Is its use meaningful?, etc.

16) Does feedback about performance in a language (e.g. correction, explicit information, etc) help acquisition?  NO.  Sanz and Morgan-Short (2002) replicated with computer-delivered input what VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) did with spoken and written input.  And, as VanPatten & Wong (2003) put it, they found that “neither explicit information nor explicit feedback seemed to be crucial for a change in performance; practice in decoding structured input alone […] was sufficient.”  In other words, explaining to people how a grammar rule in a language works, and/or pointing out, explaining and recasting (correcting) errors has no effect on acquisition.  VanPatten also writes that “Overt correction does little good in the long run” but “indirect correction may be useful,” but notes that the research on indirect feedback is far from clear.


17)  Are some people better language learners than others?  NO.  Older research (as Vanpatten, 2013, watch it here, video 5, says) suggested different people had different aptitudes.  New research (VanPatten 2013b, 2014) suggests, echoing Krashen, that on traditional tests of aptitude that measure conscious learninge.g. knowing grammar rules– there are “better” and “worse” students.

HOWEVER, in terms of processing (understanding) ability, there is no difference among people.  If they get comprehensible input, they acquire at roughly the same rate, in the same way.  A classroom that foregrounds grammar practice and output should produce a more varied mix of outcomes than one which focuses on input.  VanPatten notes that working memory– roughly, how much “stuff” one can keep in their head consciously at a time– varies between individuals, and that those with greater working memory may find language acquisition easier.

18) Do children and adults learn languages in the same way? Mostly, yes.  Children must develop a linguistic system while simultaneously acquiring a language.  For example, kids need to develop basic competencies (which adults take for granted), such as knowing that words can represent reality, that that there are such things as individual words, etc.  Once this “linguistic foundation” has been laid, kids and adults acquire languages in the same way. We know this because kids and adults make similar errors, have similar sequences of acquiring grammar, etc. As VanPatten notes, “adults and children appear to be constrained by the same mechanisms during language acquisition regardless of context, and the fundamental ingredients of language acquisition are at play in both situations: input (communicatively embedded language that learners hear or see, if sign language); Universal Grammar coupled with general learning architecture; and processing mechanisms that mediate between input and the internal architecture. In short, much of what we observe as differences between adults and children are externally imposed differences; not differences in underlying linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of acquisition. And some of those externally imposed differences are a direct result of myths about language acquisition.”

 19) Do we have data showing how well comprehensible input methods work in comparison with legacy methods?  YES.  (note:  Nov 14, 2015– this section is being updated; please comment if you have things to add)
  • C.A.L.A. testing shows T.P.R.S.-taught students outperforming other students despite having less in-class time than other students
  • Joe Dziedzic found that T.P.R.S. outperformed “communicative” teaching, with the biggest gains for T.P.R.S.-taught students being in oral and written output, despite T.P.R.S. students not being forced to speak or write outside of evaluation.
  • Ray & Seely’s Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling (7th ed.) has a research appendix.  Summary:  T.P.R.S. never works worse than, sometimes performs as well as, but mostly performs better than traditional methods.
  • Ashley Hastings’ “focal skills” C.I. approach– where what we call “Movietalk” comes from– significantly beats traditional teaching.
There is no evidence suggesting that the following legacy language practices are effective:
  • grammar teaching and practice
  • forced and/or early output
  • any kind of drill
  • error correction and/or recasts
  • minimal reading; “fragmented” one-dimensional reading (e.g. lists, informational text, etc)
  • sequenced grammar instruction

Got a study, paper, etc that needs adding? Email me or add a comment and I’ll update this.