Foreign language instructors’ most frequent pitfall and implications for teaching and learning

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net 

As already discussed in previous posts, my instructional approach to foreign language teaching is rooted in Cognitive theories of L2 acquisition and, more specifically, in Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000). Hence, my teaching is based on two main assumptions: (1) for any macro-skill to be fully acquired each and every micro-skill that that macro-skill can be broken down into must be fully acquired, too; (2) certain linguistic features are less teachable than others based on the cognitive challenges they pose to the learner, not on innate mechanisms (e.g. you would not ask a child who has not learnt the multiplication tables to solve a complex equation); many of the cognitive challenges will be of course posed by L1 negative transfer.

In twenty-five years of professional practice Steve and I have seen many language instructors frequently flout the above principles, often due to the pace and content dictated by ‘sketchy’ schemes of work or to the typical British MFL textbook structure. The new PBL trend further exacerbates the issue by neglecting the skill-building dimension of language learning.

This post concerns itself with a phenomenon which most teachers observe day-in day-out in their classroom with novice to intermediate learners: recurrent learner errors in the execution of the following micro-skills, which refer to the execution of high frequency and quite important linguistic features in most of the languages taught in the UK (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin etc.)

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

Teachers complain about the recurrence of student errors in these areas on a daily basis. What is most worrying is that many of these errors occur in written output, when, that is, an L2 writer has potentially more time to monitor and, consequently, to self-correct. This can only mean two things: (1) either the student lacks declarative knowledge of the grammar structure to deploy or (2) s/he has failed to apply the grammar rule due to cognitive overload. Both scenarios indicate that the to-be-applied structure is far from being routinized. Why?

The answer: for any skill to be routinized, the brain must create what Skill-theorists call a Production. A Production is like a program embedded in our Brain’s operating system which is triggered by a cue. Skill-theorist call this cue the ‘IF-condition’ of a production and the brain’s response to that cue the ‘THEN condition’. For instance, in the case of Noun-adjective agreement,

IF an adjective qualifies a noun (in French)

THEN that adjective’s ending must agree in gender and number with the noun

 IF the noun is feminine 

 THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ to the ending, unless it is irregular or ends in ‘-e’ already

This Production is – at least in theory – easy to create at declarative level (i.e. as a rule). The problem is that an English-speaking novice/intermediate student’s first language will work against its application at the early stages of internalizing the rule, because of negative transfer (in English you do not change adjectival endings in this context); this is especially the case when a student is working under time constraints or communicative pressure and is not asked to focus explicitly on agreement. Hence, two, three or even four lessons on adjectival agreement will never be sufficient, like many teachers seem to presume. They are often satisfied that their students seem to get adjectival agreement right during the lessons explicitly devoted to that grammar structure and they move on to another topic or skill.

The problem is that after two, three or even ten lessons that Production is only at the very early stages of its routinization. It will take many instances of application and positive feedback on its deployment for that Production to be automatized (i.e. applied quickly and effortlessly) as the brain is very cautious before ‘deciding’ to create any new permanent cognitive structure. Hence the fundamental micro-skills listed above must be practised as extensively as possible whether in class or through homework – ideally in every single lesson – before one can assume they have been mastered.

Although I am sure that most teachers would agree with most of the above, I wonder how many MFL classroom practitioners actually focus consistently and extensively enough on ensuring that they are effectively routinized. Yet, unless we do not care about accuracy, lack of routinization of the above micro-skills can undermine the subsequent learning of important complex structures and, consequently, progression along the L2 acquisition continuum. Here is an example. Think about the first three items in the micro-skills list above:

  1. Manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number

A few years ago I observed a lesson where the instructor was teaching her students (French) reflexive verbs in the Perfect tense (e.g. je me suis habillée) where the Past Participle has to agree in gender and number with the subject. It was clear to me not only that the students had not at all routinized the three micro-skills above but that they had not received much practice in verb-ending manipulation at all – a fundamental skill to master when learning a Latin language. Their processing ability was poor and this hindered their progression throughout the lesson. They were clumsy and slow in manipulating verbs and this impacted their accuracy and fluency.

Much of the cognitive overload that hinders language acquisition in French, Spanish, Italian and German learning is due to the insufficient practice students receive across those micro-skills. The Anglo-Saxon brain being not wired for and not used to manipulating verb and adjectival endings, a great amount of effort must be put on a daily basis by teachers on practising this specific set of micro-skills consistently  and systematically since the very early stages of learning. As I intend to show below, it is easy, not very time consuming and it pays enormous dividends. In my case, with CIE as an examination board, getting my student to be 100% correct in verb and tenses formation is a must, since the written exams assessment scheme requires high levels of accuracy (e.g. the written piece must feature the accurate use of 18 different verbs).

The same applies to any of the other micro-skills on that list. Consider word order of adjectives. Taken in isolation, the rule/Production “IF an adjective qualifies the noun, THEN place the adjective after the noun” seems easy to grasp and acquire. And at the end of a single lesson on it, teachers usually feel confident that it has been learnt. However, the above Production, when combined with the other related productions “IF the adjective qualifies a noun it must agree in gender and number with that noun” and “IF the noun is feminine THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ becomes much less easy to handle effectively and efficiently in cognitive terms unless the other two Productions have been highly routinized. Processing of the above Productions becomes even more cumbersome with novice learners when it occurs in the context of the creation of a complex sentence where they are coping with several structures simultaneously (e.g. conjugating the verbs in the sentence, choosing the right preposition, retrieving the correct lexis).

If novice to intermediate learners are not provided sufficient practice in the above micro-skills the risk of L1 transfer impacting student output will always be present, especially when the learners are working under pressure in contexts where there is not much time for self-monitoring (e.g exams, oral performance). This may lead to the fossilization of erroneous forms (i.e. the permanent internalization of mistakes) even when the learners know the rule(s) relative to those forms. This is a widely documented phenomenon in English secondary schools.

In conclusion, curriculum designers and teachers must reconsider the way they go about progression, in my view, or at least allow for more practice of the above micro-skills and related structures. Teachers using Independent Inquiry / PBL must be particularly cautious as this aspect of L2 learning is often neglected in their instructional approach. Creative ways must be found to embed any of the activities below.

Implications for the classroom – curriculum design and minimumpreparation teaching strategies

  1. Systematic recycling in Schemes of Work: in the first two or even three years of instruction, schemes of work should make explicit reference to the above micro-skills and allow for constant recycling. Opportunities for regular formative assessment aimed at evaluating the routinization of the micro-skills should be included, too.
  1. Micro-skill tracking : As I already advocated in a previous post, the use of a tracking sheet where one logs all the instances of recycling of each micro-skill in lessons can be extremely handy in assisting recycling
  1. Grammaticality judgment quizzes (to be used only at initial stages): Write three phrases on the board of which only one is accurate: e.g. une belle femme – une beau femme – une bel femme
  1. Gap-fills with or without options (still for the initial stages only): there are plenty of free gap-fills activities online (e.g. www.language-gym.com; www.languagesonline.org.uk ). I have uploaded lots of free ones onto www.tes.co.uk. www.frenchteacher.net has loads, too.
  1. Online self-marking verb trainers (at any stage): I find verb-trainers very valuable to the point that I created my own (free at www.language-gym.com). I ask my students to go on it every day for five minutes purely as a habit formation tool. Do not presume that just because they get 100 % on a verb trainer module and they can conjugate verbs very fast they have routinized verb use, obviously. They need to demonstrate correct deployment of verbs under real operating conditions, first.
  1. Mini White board activities (novice to advance stage depending on complexity)

5a. Translations (my favourite);

5b. Verb training – give pronoun, verb and tense and ask students to conjugate on the spot;

5c. From sound to letter (decoding skills) – pronounce a sound (e.g. ‘uah’ – in French) and ask students to write the combination of letters it represents (e.g. oi) ;

5d. Short dictations – utter a word that you have never taught your students and ask them to guess its spelling based on their decoding-skills repertoire

5e. Picture task –  example: picture of a green car; students to write: una macchina verde (Italian) / une voiture verte (French)

 

  1. Oral translation (novice to advance stage depending on complexity) – This is another favourite of mine. Students are given cards with bullet points and need to translate them into the target language in real time. Each bullet point will elicit the execution of the target micro-skill (e.g. agreement; verb conjugation; word order). This can be done impromptu, if one wants to assess student level of fluency or after some preparation. Although they require a bit more preparation – not much, though – the cards can be used across languages.

Conclusion

Teachers often complain about their students’ mistakes in the execution of the following micro-skills:

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

However, the problem lies in the lack of extensive practice the students receive in the performance of those skills. At the early stages of instruction students must be given extensive practice as frequently as possible until there is evidence that they have automatized them and that their execution occupies only subsidiary awareness. Moving on to another topic or structure prematurely can have serious negative consequences for student learning.

7 thoughts on “Foreign language instructors’ most frequent pitfall and implications for teaching and learning

  1. hi
    got a question that is somewhat off tangent to this post but here goes:
    1. to what extent is L1 negative transfer more of a factor in learner language than developmental aspects such as interlanguage?

    any refs, reading recommendations appreciated🙂

    many thanks
    mura

  2. Great post with great ideas. I too take a lot of my pedagogy from skill acquisition theory.

    Question. You said “As I already advocated in a previous post, the use of a tracking sheet where one logs all the instances of recycling of each micro-skill in lessons can be extremely handy in assisting recycling”

    Which post are you referring to?

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