It is not just about ‘how often’, but ‘how’ you recycle – five learning principles that make it or break it in L2 grammar instruction


In this very concise post I deal with five factors which are often neglected in grammar instruction, yet curriculum designers and teachers ought to heed as they are crucial to its success. In particular, I will focus on the most important dimension of acquisition of an L2 structure, i.e. its extensive receptive and productive recycling over the long period of time required for an L2 learner to fully acquire it. As I will argue, this crucial phase is usually undermined by the erroneous belief held by many practitioners, that recycling is just about the quantity of exposure and practice; whereas, in actual fact, the quality of the recycling is as – if not more – important

Caveat: this post is based on the premise that if students are developmentally ready they can acquire a given grammar structure through the kind of extensive recycling envisaged below.

2. Extensive recycling and interleaving 

Many of us teach grammar in the belief that through much practice it will be finally acquired or automatized. As I often write in my posts, this requires curriculum designers and teachers to keep whatever structure we are imparting on our students ‘alive’ by recycling it over and over throughout the months or even years that follow. Common sense, right?

What cognitive science suggests is that teachers should teach grammar structures A, B, C over time following an ABCABCABC rather than AAABBBCCC pattern.

The ABCABCABC distributed/spaced-practice recycling pattern, also referred in the literature as ‘Interleaving’, allows one’s students to revisit the target structures over and over again in a systematic manner – something that, incidentally, textbooks rarely do.

The AAABBBCCC massed-practice pattern, on the other hand, allows for an intensive exposure/practice phase of each structure but because of the way the brain works, no recycling will mean that automatization will not occur, and memory decay will likely set in.

3. It is not simply about how often you recycle but how you recycle

However, recycling a structure many times over is not enough. Successful acquisition is not merely about the quantity is also about the quality of the recycling; whilst frequency of recycling is a must, for acquisition to occur, effective grammar teaching must take into account other very important factors which determine successful retrieval. These factors affect the way our students process L2 items thereby facilitating or hindering their learning of a given grammar structure / morpheme

4. Five make-it-or-break factors affecting learning


FACTOR 1 : Skill- specificity


In recycling, we must heed the fact that what we learn through extensive listening or reading practice will result in gains specific to listening or reading not necessarily transferrable to the other three language skills. In other words, most L2 learning is skill-specific.


Implications for teaching: to be effective, the recycling of a target structure needs to occur through all four language skills.


FACTOR 2:  Context-dependency

According to the TAP  (transfer appropriate processing) principle, the context we learn information in plays a massive role in our ability to recall the same information in the future. This is because memory is context dependent. Consequently, a structure learnt through oral mechanical drills may not be retrieved from long-term memory during a more natural spontaneous conversation. By the same token, extensive reading practice may not result in the students being able to do other reading tasks (e.g. Jigsaw reading).
Implications for Teaching: make sure that recycling occurs across as wide a range of tasks, semantic areas and linguistic contexts as possible. If you are using apps such as Quizlet or Memrise, ensure that you vary the structures and  vocabulary the target structure co-occurs with, so as to increase the range of semantic and linguistic retrieval cues.


FACTOR 3 Deep processing
The most effective recycling is one which involves the learners in deep rather than shallow processing. In other words, the learners’ cognitive investment in the task through which you are recycling goes beyond mere repetition – of the like that Quizlet and Memrise require of them.


Implications for teaching: make sure the target structure is recycled through tasks which (1) require problem solving (e.g. inductive grammar learning tasks, grammaticality judgement tasks, spot the error tasks); (2) asks of them to use the target structure in a real life communicative task to fill an information gap (e.g. a pair-work task whereby student A knows something about what someone they know did yesterday that student B doesn’t know and vice versa, the task being finding out from one another in the past tense the missing information); (3) involve creativity (e.g. If you were a fruit/car/food/colour what would you be and why?; writing a poem using the target structure).


FACTOR 4. Form/Meaning Competition
When L2 learners attend to tasks requiring them to focus on the  meaning of the input/output, they do not usually attend to form, especially when the task-at-hand uses up most of the cognitive resources available in their working memory. This is because the brain can only allocate so many resources to the execution of a task and meaning is always prioritised over form unless the task specifically require them to focus on form. Conversely, when the task’s focus is on form, the brain is likely to neglect meaning.


Implications for teaching: recycling should occur through a synergy of tasks which require the students to focus on form (e.g. mechanical drills) and others which require focus on meaning (e.g. communicative  tasks)


FACTOR 5:  Salience


The salience of a grammar item refers to the extent to which it is noticeable by the learner in the input they receive. The more noticeable an item is, the more likely it is that your students will pick it up from the input you give them. The opposite will be true of less salient items.

There are a number of factors which contribute to the noticeability of a morpheme/grammar structure. The most important ones – perceptual salience, semantic weight, regularity, frequency, affective response – have been discussed in this post: What they don’t notice they can’t learn – On the role of salience in instructed language acquisition. As I wrote in that post,

effective teaching is not just about classroom delivery, but also about the way we structure the linguistic input we provide our students with and the way we plan its recycling in our medium- and long-term planning. A teacher who is fully aware of the factors that make certain L2 items s/he sets outs to teach less salient than others and uses such awareness to implement strategies to make those items more noticeable is more likely to secure his learners’ uptake of those items than a teacher who isn’t. Take prepositions, discourse markers, word suffixes and pronouns. They are not semantically salient, i.e. they do not provide essential cues to the meaning of a sentence one is reading or hearing; hence, when we read or hear a sentence, especially a complex one, these items will occupy only peripheral awareness in our working memory (meaning: the brain does not pay much attention to them) hence, they are less likely to be noticed and learnt. This happens in our first language and even more so in a foreign language, especially if we are novice-to-intermediate learners. Add to this the fact that these words are usually quite short and don’t carry stress and are consequently less easy to perceive. A French example: on hearing the French sentence ‘J’y suis allé hier soir après l’école’, as pronounced by a native speaker, a novice is unlikely to perceive the ‘y’ (there). An English example: on processing aurally the sentence ‘Which one of them would you like?’, a novice is very likely not to clearly hear the preposition ‘of’. Unsurprisingly, articles, prepositions and pronouns are amongst the items that L2 learners of French notoriously find the hardest to learn and are usually acquired late in instructed (non-immersive) settings.


Implications for teaching: these factors must be taken into account by L2 instructors in building in recycling in the curriculum, as items which are less salient will require the implementation of instructional strategies and tasks designed to enhance their noticeability in the input and to increase their occurrence in learner output. Take the ‘frequency’ factor. It is obvious that the more high-frequency an L2 item is, the more likely it is that it will be noticed and eventually acquired. Since the opposite will be true of low-frequency L2 items, the instructor will have to ensure that the input they provide their learners with and the output they ‘push’ out of them will be ‘flooded’ with such items.

One very effective strategy to ensure that less salient items are firmly placed in our students’ focal awareness is by making them one of your universals.

More strategies to increase the learnability of less salient items can be found in the above mentioned article (here).


5. Conclusions


The success of recycling doesn’t simply hinge on the quantity of exposure to and practice with the target grammar items your students get from you. The quality of the recycling matters enormously too. Teachers must heed the five factors discussed above if they want to facilitate acquisition of the grammar structures they set out to teach. In my experience, of those factors two are the most commonly neglected by classroom practitioners. Firstly, the TAP principle, i.e. the context specificity of learning an L2 item; way too often these days the students practise and re-practise a given grammar structure using the very same Quizlet/Memrise task/game. Secondly, the issue of salience: less semantically and perceptually salient items do not receive in most curricula the enhanced emphasis they require in order to be learnable.



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