How verb conjugation drills can enhance oral and written fluency. A skill-building perspective

TES3

It sounds like a paradox, right? It goes against everything you have been taught on your teacher training course, doesn’t it? How can grammar drills ever improve fluency? It’s learning grammar by rote! It’s what language teachers used to do in the 50’s!

In actual fact, as I shall argue below, verb conjugation drills can indeed enhance the ease and speed at which L2 learners produce spoken and written output. To understand why, let us look at how L2 output is produced.

How L2 output is produced

Every time an individual produces linguistic output, they will have to translate the idea / message they are trying to convey (or proposition, as cognitive psychologist call it) into language. This process happens at very high speed with native speakers (Anderson, 2000). However, with novice target language speakers the process is much slower, especially when they are producing complex sentences which pose a heavy cognitive load on Working Memory. Imagine an intermediate student of average ability wanted to convey the following, in French:

Yesterday we went to the cinema with them (feminine). The film was great but the cinema was packed.

First, the student will have to retrieve all the vocabulary they need from Long-Term Memory. At this point Working Memory, that can only contain 5 to 9 digits at any one time for around 15-to-30 seconds (without rehearsal), will be already stretched in terms of storage capacity. Whilst holding the words in Working Memory, the brain has to ensure that each lexical item is arranged in the correct syntactic order and that the rules of tense and agreement are applied correctly. This requires a number of cognitive operations some of which involve sub-operations (e.g. ‘they arrived’ in French require the perfect tense; however it is a verb requiring the verb ‘to be’ as an auxiliary; also ‘they’ being plural I will have to add ‘-s’ to the ending of the verb).

If a student has not automatized verb formation and the application of the various rules of tense and agreement involved, the process will be extremely cumbersome and may lead to error. For instance, a typical intermediate student of average ability will master most of the vocabulary in the sentence above. However, they may struggle with the translation of ‘we went’ (being a verb requiring the auxiliary Etre in the Perfect tense); they may be undecided as to whether to use eux, ils or se for ‘them’; moreover, they may have problems deciding if ‘Was’ should be translated using the imperfect or the perfect tense; etc. Each and every decision has to be taken whilst simultaneously the brain has to rehearse every single vocabulary item in Working Memory. This is an ominous task for an intermediate learner and the slightest interference can cause Working Memory loss, leading to processing inefficiency errors.

It is easy to see how, in this and other linguistic contexts, the automatization of verb formation would contribute to speed up the process of output production; one less cognitive operation to worry about. And when the conjugation drills involve oral production, they have the added benefit of automatizing the pronunciation of verb forms; this will further ease up the cognitive load of the pre-intermediate to intermediate learner as pronunciation will require less conscious attention, freeing up more Working Memory space.

The best verb drills are those which train students to retrieve the target verb forms quickly. My favourite ones involve the use of online conjugation trainers such as the one I created at www.language-gym.com – which, incidentally, is free. Why? Because they offer support (‘cheat sheets’ with the solution); they are self-marking; they provide stats (numerical and visual) which give you a clear idea of how the students are doing and – in the case of the Language Gym conjugator – they have images and English translation which help memorize the meaning of the verbs.

The objection often made by the critics of verb drills is that the students do not learn the target verbs in context. However, such criticism stems from a misunderstanding of the role of these activities. Verb conjugation drills do not aim at the acquisition of verbs; their goal is the automatization of one aspect of verb acquisition: verb formation. Hence, they are only a small but very important cog in a very complex mechanism. Unlike in behaviourist L2 pedagogy models, verb conjugation drills should not dominate our lessons. Not at all. They only make sense as a means to support the development of communicative competence. Their merit lies in focusing Working Memory’s attentional systems solely on verb morphology in a ‘stress-free’ environment, where there is no communicative pressure nor high levels of cognitive challenge. Hence, they should be used with discernment.

I usually flip verb-conjugation practice at home using the www.language-gym.com verb-conjugation trainer (I ask the students to send to my school e-mail account the screenshots of the score obtained at the end of each session). In class, I use verb drills (whether through MWB, or the online verb trainer) only as a pre-task activity before a communicative oral or written task, in order to:

  • Activate the verb forms relative to the tense(s) the to-be-staged communicative activity is likely to elicit;
  • Focus the students on the issue of agreement and verb accuracy in general, verb-endings being one of the first things that the students neglect when working under communicative pressure;
  • Get a good overview of each student’s level of verb-formation automatization before the activity; this information will be useful when the teacher walks around the classroom monitoring the students as they carry out the oral tasks in that it will cue him/her to whom will require more support.

Another important merit of verb conjugation drills is that, as a spin-off, students often acquire the meaning of a wide repertoire of verbs. Macaro (2007) makes the very important point that L2 learners need a wide repertoire of verbs – wider than the average UK GCSE learner currently gets –  to become effective autonomous speakers of the target language.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, verb conjugation drills have been written off by the advocates of strong CLT and Nativist approaches (e.g. TPRS) as legacy methods which are of no use in L2 pedagogy. However, as I argued above, they can play a crucial role in enhancing fluency by bringing about the automatization of verb formation thereby facilitating speech production by reducing the cognitive load on L2-learner working memory.

Online verb-conjugation trainers are particularly effective in this regard, in that they force the learner to be accurate (the program only accept 100% accurate input); they foster independent learning (as they are self-marking); they train students to retrieve the target verb forms quickly (as the students usually perform against the clock) and, finally, they offer support in the way of conjugation lists, which make the process less threatening for them. Add the fact that ways can be easily found to add a competition element to the tasks. Moreover, when using online verb trainers the children are usually quiet and concentrated- at least in my experience. I recommend getting the student to carry out verb drills (whether flipped or in class) in small doses several times a week.

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