New Insights into Grammar Practice from Cognitive Science


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.  


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.