New Insights into Grammar Practice from Cognitive Science

stacy 

New Insights into Grammar Practice from Cognitive Science

By Stacy Hagen

Grammar practice, particularly at the sentence level, may bring up associations of rote drills or mindless repetition. As teachers, we’re supposed to focus on activities that are communicative or task-based. Yet, as Dörnyei (2009) points out, communicative language teaching is based on learning by doing and does not look at how people actually learn. Some second language researchers have turned to cognitive science to look at what is happening in the adult brain as we learn, and findings related to memory and skill acquisition have important implications for how we practice the skills. Let’s take a look at a few key points.

Automatization

Our working memory, where we hold and process information for a short time, is limited to only a few items, perhaps four at the most. The good news is that we can create more room in our working memory by making a skill automatic. In skill acquisition theory, this is known as automatization. Once a behavior becomes automatic and moves to procedural memory (a part of our long-term memory), there is room to handle more complex tasks. An easy example to relate to comes from math. After children have learned their times tables and can automatically retrieve information from their procedural memory, their working memory is free to do more complicated math.

In language development, it is our procedural memory that allows us to speak automatically without focusing on grammar or syntax. DeKeyser (2007) found in his research with second language learners that repeated practice led to automatization: the error rate and reaction time declined as a result of practice.

In the classroom, we need to provide sufficient, repeated practice, and the repetition should be interesting and meaningful.  Role-play, games, stories, personalized practice, and fun fluency techniques, as in the following activity, are just a few of the ways we can make repetition relevant and engaging.

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Incremental practice and spaced repetition

Another insight from cognitive science is the importance of presenting information in bite-size pieces. Breaking down exercises into shorter pieces or subtasks can help reduce the working memory load. Incremental step-by-step practice helps students absorb material better. Long grammar charts are useful references for teachers, but students benefit more from practicing fewer points at any one time.

Similarly, learners retain information better when practice is spread out over time (spaced practice) rather than condensed (massed practice). Gerunds and infinitives are a good example. Traditionally, grammar books cover them in one or two chapters, and there are often upwards of 200 to learn. Teaching gerunds and infinitives in small numbers from the beginning of the term, with lots of time for recycling, will result in deeper learning as the information moves into long-term storage.

As a profession, we have gotten away from asking students to memorize. Nevertheless, a useful technique called spaced repetition can help memorize some basic grammar structures. Basically, spaced repetition is a way of memorizing information by spacing out practice at specific intervals. Hinkel (2015), in her book Effective Curriculum for Teaching L2 Writing, says that spaced repetition is the single most important technique in all vocabulary teaching. Likewise, there are grammar structures that lend themselves to memorization: irregular past tense and past participle forms, gerunds and infinitives, preposition combinations with verbs and adjectives, and two- and three-word verbs. Students who know their past participles don’t need to worry about forms as they create sentences requiring perfect verbs.

flashcards

Pattern seeking

Another interesting finding is that the adult brain is a pattern-seeking organ. Carefully designed charts and exercises can help learners see patterns, which in turn, helps them make sense of the information they are learning. Having students complete exercises that specifically focus on grammatical patterns (such as in the example below) allows them to gain a fuller understanding of the target grammar they are learning.

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This is an exciting time for our field. Cognitive science is shedding new light on how we learn, and researchers have found that repeated, meaningful practice can help our students learn more efficiently and deeply.

The new edition of Understanding and Using English Grammar incorporates the findings from cognitive science research. Click here to learn more about the new edition.  

References

DeKeyser, Robert M. 2007. Practice in a Second Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dörnyei, Zoltan. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hinkel, Eli. 2015. Effective Curriculum for Teaching L2 Writing: Principles and Techniques, New York: Routledge.

 

Flipping Your Grammar Classes with the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series

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Geneva Tesh

The flipped classroom model is not a new concept for most ESL teachers. We’ve been flipping classes long before it became the latest trend in education, long before we even knew what to call it, understanding intuitively that students will not acquire a language by passively listening to an instructor’s lecture. Flipping the classroom happens naturally in conversation and reading classes, which lend themselves to class discussions or role-playing activities, or in writing classes, where students can spend valuable class time writing and peer editing. But what about grammar classes? This seems to be where many teachers get trapped in the common pitfalls of providing lengthy explanations and reading through a list of rules, followed by reciting answers to fill-in-the-blank activities. How can grammar teachers apply the flipped model to create engaging, dynamic lessons? Continue reading

M is for Motivation

Ken Beatty  Dr. Ken Beatty

“Daddy, can I please help take out the garbage?”

Now that my sons are teenagers, it’s been a while since I’ve heard requests like that. But when they were young, even the most mundane events and tasks seemed to appeal to them as exciting experiences and learning opportunities.

What changed?

All children learn, but some learn better, faster, and more easily than others. Certainly some learners are more able or less able, but a key difference in any learner’s acquisition of knowledge is motivation.

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, or internalized motivation, is one in which learners find their own personal reasons for learning. Extrinsic, or externalized, motivation is when learners are driven by others’ ideas of what to learn, how to learn it, and how success in learning might be measured. A challenge for teachers is how to move extrinsically motivated learners to become intrinsically motivated ones. Achieving this shift fosters better attitudes toward learning and develops a culture of lifelong learning. Continue reading

Explore the New Pearson ELT eCatalog

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IMMEDIATE – INTERACTIVE – INFORMATIVE 

These three words describe the new eCatalog from Pearson ELT. This new eCatalog has everything you would expect from a catalog, and so much more! Do you want to know how to use the catalog - click here to watch the video!

What does the fully interactive catalog mean for you?
With just a click of a button, you can:

  • View hundreds of sample units from any level.
  • Listen to podcasts and audio samples.
  • Watch product and author video clips.
  • Search by key word, author, or ISBN.
  • Read articles by Pearson authors.
  • Link to easy online ordering.
  • E-mail your ELT Specialist directly.
  • Share with colleagues by e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter.

Start exploring today! 

Back to the Future: Still More Low-Tech Activities
for a High-Tech Classroom

2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer

This is the last article in a four-part series on activities that foster physical activity in the classroom. I titled the series “Back to the Future” because my search for activities led me back to time-tested ones I began using years, even decades ago. At first I balked at reviving them; I confess that the razzle-dazzle of the new technology had a stronger pull on me. But when I saw how enthusiastically my class responded, I had to remind myself that although the interactive activities were old hat to me, they were novel to my students, who were accustomed to a teacher-centered learning environment, one in which they rarely, if ever, got out of their seats.

I chose the activities because they might benefit our physical health, but they may have improved our psychological health as well. I think we all enjoyed periodically taking our attention off the big screen at the front of the room and instead focusing on one another. After all, that people-to-people connection, not gliding desks or a high-tech console, is what makes a class great. It’s what has always mattered—and always will.

In previous newsletters, we took a look at six activities:

  1. The Moving Line
  2. Conversation Stations
  3. Walking Dictation
  4. Find Your Match
  5. Opinion, Please
  6. Line Up According To

Below are the final two activities, Find Someone Who and The One-Question Survey. Continue reading