Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Alternatives to Mechanical Drills for the Early Stages of Language Practice in Foreign Language Textbooks

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Alternatives to Mechanical Drills for the Early Stages of Language Practice in Foreign Language Textbooks

Article excerpt

Abstract:

There is a growing body of research indicating that mechanical drills do not facilitate the development of explicit or implicit knowledge. This study identifies the inadequate aspects of mechanical drills and offers alternative activities for the early stages of language practice, whose formats and features comply with recent research in the learning and acquisition of foreign languages. Wong and VanPatten's (2003) referential structured input activities are suggested as substitutes to practice grammatical features that contribute meaningfully to the utterance. However, for allophonic or allomorphic alternations that are governed by the phonetic, stress, or grammatical context and that do not convey meaning, a new type of activity (form-form activities) is introduced, which promotes noticing by directing learners to actively operationalize their understanding of grammatical rules. Production activities for the later stages of practice are briefly discussed, and this study concludes with advice for instructors regarding their expectations of students' performance.

Key words: form-meaning connections, grammar drills, input, recognition, textbook activities

Language: Relevant to all foreign languages

Introduction

Although grammatical features differ in the cognitive challenges that they pose to learners and this implies that forms should be taught and practiced in different ways, the early stages of controlled language practice presented in foreign language textbooks continue to reflect behaviorist teaching methods, namely pattern practice and mechanical drills. The goal of this study is to identify the inadequate aspects of mechanical practice and offer alternative activities whose formats and features comply with recent research in the learning and acquisition1 of foreign languages.

This study begins with an overview of the existing research on the influence of explicit instruction on learning and acquisition and then defines the features of effective language practice activities based on this research. An evaluation of mechanical drills and pattern practice in terms of these features reveals the inadequacies of these activities and leads to the presentation of two alternative types of activities that differ according to the amount of meaning grammatical structures convey.2 As suggested by Wong & VanPatten (2003), referential structured input activities are ideal for forms that contribute to the propositional content of the message. For language features that are governed by the phonetic, stress, or grammatical context, and that therefore do not convey meaning, a new activity type called form-form activities is introduced. In contrast to mechanical practice, both alternative types of activities are shown to have the features of effective textbook activities and to comply with research in SLA.

Structured input and form-form activities are suitable for the early stages of learning because they do not require that learners produce target forms but instead guide them to identify their meanings and contexts of use. Follow-up production activities for the subsequent stages of practice are suggested, and instructors are cautioned to realign their expectations of students' performance based on what is known about learning and acquisition, as well as the characteristics of the structures being learned.

Second Language Research and Language Practice Activities

Reviews of second language acquisition (SLA) research reveal an overall positive effect of explicit grammar instruction on the acquisition of implicit knowledge (N. C. Ellis & Laporte, 1997; R. Ellis, 1997; Leow, 1999; Lightbown, 2000; Norris & Ortega, 2000; Spada, 1997). However, these results, which are from studies conducted in a variety of teaching contexts, do not mean that any type of instruction is equally effective at any time for all grammatical structures. Although much has yet to be discovered regarding the timing and types of instruction, Pienemann (1984, 1985) has determined that grammar instruction cannot affect the route of acquisition, since some grammatical structures are subject to processing constraints and are acquired in a developmental sequence that is unalterable. …

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