M is for Memorization

8 04 2011

What lessons can psychology teach us about second language instruction?

In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009) draws six practical implications from current research findings, one being that instruction “should be meaning focused and personally engaging” (p.302). Nothing surprising about that, perhaps, but what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning?

Reviewing this book in the latest ELT Journal, Steven McDonough asks “Surely he is not suggesting that learners should learn grammar rules by heart?” (McDonough, 2011, p. 195). Since I don’t yet have the book, I have no way of checking. But in an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is “rote learning ability”. This is “the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations” (Carroll, 1981, p.105). Accordingly, the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), which Carroll had a hand in, includes a rote learning component: “Students have a total of four minutes to memorize 24 Kurdish/English word pairs. Retention is tested by means of a multiple choice test…” (cited in Dörnyei, 2005, p. 37). (Easy if you’re Kurdish, of course!)

Subsequently, Skehan (1998), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that “memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance” (p.204). It’s not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: “To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with a rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use” (p.221).

If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results?

In a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote-learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, “The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them.” What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, were entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: “Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent “. As one of the subjects reported, “through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points”.

Now I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. I have to say that the book has exceeded my expectations, and triumphantly fulfils its back-cover promise: “Memory Activities for Language Learning explores the cognitive processes of memory and provides a bank of activities to facilitate their development”.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.


Carroll, J.B. 1981. Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude. In K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Ding, Y. 2007. Text memorisation and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System 35: 271-80.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough, S. 2011. Review of Dörnyei (2009) in ELT Journal, 65/2, pp. 194-6.

Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Hamilton, J. 1946. Método de Inglés (Tercer Libro) Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Progreso.



57 responses

10 04 2011
Eric Roth

Informative and persuasive. Students often find memorizing language chunks and vital phrases is necessary and often quite effective. The romantic notion that rejects any need for memorization is more than problematic; it’s often quite counter-productive and blocks student progress.

10 04 2011

I find it less than convincing. I learned how to speak Spanish to a reasonably good level (perhaps B2/C1) without memorising anything whatsoever. It seemed that living in Spain, finding a Spanish girlfriend, sharing a house with Spanish speakers and reading as much as I could was enough for me. Perhaps my memory was located outside my head and all around me?

The Skehan quote (“memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance”) tugs too much at the mind-as-a-computer metaphor so beloved by the cognitivists that I feel uncomfortable with it. That said, I have to confess to an utter ignorance of the workings of neuroscience and it may be that it really is the most apt metaphor. But I prefer the less mechanical metaphors of the social constructivists.

I haven’t yet read the Ding article, but promise to do so. In the meantime I wonder if this reasearch proves that there is a causal relationshop between being able to memorise huge chunks of text and being a proficient language learner. Might it not be that people who are proficient language learners are also able to remember huge chunks of text? I have to say, the idea that we all go around learning film scripts in order to add to the corpus in our heads is one that strikes me as counter-intuitive.

As ever, I am open to being convinced that the brain is really more like a machine that just needs to swallow tonnes of input in order to be able to produce the correct output, but at this stage, I see it as benefitting from NOT having to unquestioningly swallow all of the data that it is fed. It needs to interact with the data, mould it, shape it, take it apart, watch how it fails, and then reassemble it again. It’s more like a curious child with a screwdriver. N’est-ce pas?

10 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Diarmuid, and you’re right – the idea of memory as ‘corpus-in-your-head’ that is accessed by a limited capacity information processor is definitely a cognitivist one (witness the title of Skehan’s book). Your point that – for you – your ‘corpus’ was ‘outside your head’ – in the linguistic environment in which you were immersed – is also a good one, and probably explains why you didn’t have to consciously internalise it. Simply through exposure and use your memory for language increased and complexified. In this sense you were ‘primed’ for language use – to use Hoey’s (2004) term. “As a word is acquired through encounters with it in speech and writing, it becomes cumulatively loaded with the contexts and co-texts in which it is encountered, and our knowledge of it includes the fact that it co-occurs with certain other words in certain kinds of context. The same applies to word sequences built out of these words; these too become loaded with the context and co-text in which they occur” (p.8). The cumulative result of all these primings is a functioning lexico-grammar, much of which is stored as prefabricated, multi-word items.

For the Chinese learners, who lacked the rich opportunities for exposure and use that you had in Spain, how were they to get the primings they needed in order to build a complex, working system in their second language, including an accessible lexicon of prefabs? Arguably, from memorizing whole texts. As Ding notes, “the practice enabled them to ‘borrow for writing and speech’…i.e. borrow the collocations and sequences for productive uses. W [one of the informants] said that she was still using many of the sentences she had recited in middle school. For instance, while other students used ‘family is very important’, she borrowed a sentence pattern she had learned from Book 3 of New Concept English…: ‘Nothing can be compared to the importance of family.’ This made a better sentence, she said”.

10 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Regarding your other point, Diarmuid, about which is the chicken and which the egg, Ding comments “Successful learners are often seen as having exceptional aptitudes, but in this study, the three students themselves did not always feel this way. Their success came from years of practice in imitation, memorisation and communication, which was usually forced upon them by their teacher, but later came to be driven by motivation arising from initial success, teacher praise and personal interest”.

12 04 2011

*Of course* immersion is a great method of learning a language. I’ve never known anyone to question that. The question is how we go about teaching and learning languages when there’s not a constant stream of natural language input available.

As strange as it may seem, I think that memorization actually simulates some aspects of an immersive environment. When you’re immersed, you get frequent repetition of pieces of language. A phrase that you heard five minutes ago gets repeated, then you hear it again in another situation two days later. That repeated exposure burns it into your brain.

When you’re spending much less time with a language, you don’t get the same kind of natural reinforcement. If you just have a few hours a week to spend on a language, focused repetition of language you have already been exposed to is extremely helpful. Otherwise, you’re constantly learning and forgetting new language that doesn’t have a chance to “take root”.

“[The brain] needs to interact with the data, mould it, shape it, take it apart, watch how it fails, and then reassemble it again.”

I completely agree with this. I just find that my brain, in particular, does this better with language that’s already been committed to memory. Once the data is “in there”, it has more opportunities to interact with new stimuli.

12 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

….repeated exposure burns it into your brain…

Yes, the idea is right, even if the metaphor perhaps misrepresents the process!

Here’s how a cognitive linguist puts it: “Learning theory recognises three major experiential factors that affect cognition: frequency, recency, and context… Learning, memory and perception are all affected by frequency of usage: the more times we experience something, the stronger our memory for it, and the more fluently it is accessed. The more recently we have experienced something, the stronger our memory for it, and the more fluently it is accessed. The more times we experience conjunctions of features, the more they become associated in our minds and the more these subsequently affect perception and categorisation; so a stimulus becomes associated to a context and we become more likely to perceive it in that context” (Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics, London: Routledge, p.657).

23 03 2013
IELTS Singapore

This is a fascinating article. I’m an IELTS and ESL teacher in Singapore and I have many Chinese (from China) students.

I’ve always wondered about the role of rote-learning. You know, the Chinese are famous for this.

And I do think, like Scott, that this is a neglected aspect. The Asian education system tends to focus on rote-learning. The Western on creativity and critical thinking. I think we need both and it’s wrong to completely throw out either one.

One thing I want to point out regarding dfogarty’s experience with learning the Spanish language is that comparing that with a Chinese learning English is very different. I learned Spanish for many years and I love the language. But an English speaker learning Spanish – that’s not that difficult! The languages (grammar and vocabulary) are not as different as the difference between Chinese and English – and for that matter probably between most Asian languages and English. Therefore, I don’t think the comparison is very valid.

So perhaps memorization can play a huge role for Chinese and Asian and whatever learners whose mother tongue is very different from English.

Another interesting thing to note is that they used New Concept English. I’m hardly the academic and not as knowledgeable as others here regarding the history of ELT, etc. But I believe that was a very grammatical syllabus and perhaps even before the Communicative Language revolution or at least the structure and emphasis on grammar of the textbook would be very different from say New Cutting Edge and other books today. I wonder if that played a part too in these Chinese being able to attain a high level of communicative proficiency.

In Singapore, I’ve read of really smart Chinese scholars who came to Singapore knowing virtually no English but ended up within a few years (can’t remember if it’s 2 or 6 years) being able to get As for their General Paper (GP). But these are extremely intelligent students – those that would eventually enter the very best Universities in the world – Harvard, etc. So maybe intelligence plays a huge role too.

10 04 2011

It’s as simple as this: if rote learning helps you to learn a language, utilize it.

My initiation into ELT coincided with me trying to learn Turkish. My CELTA tutors’ dislike for the out-of-fashion method did untold damage to my quest to reach a comfortable level of ‘street Turkish’. They told me not to teach others to learn languages in this way and I believed them.

One book changed my mind. Keith Folse, in his 2005 masterpiece ‘Vocabulary Myths’ suggests that memorization and the learning of word lists ‘parrot fashion’ are great *if* they are complemented by other techniques. Basically, don’t discount the role of memorization but don’t rely solely on it.

10 04 2011

Being all for memory learning and a great fan of the Lexical Approach, I think it is not rote but analytical learning that is slightly neglected in language education. I agree that a vast lexical store plus mental agility in the retrieval of its contents matter, especially in real-time communication. Language, however, is sometimes about other things, like interpretation. In such a case, especially in the face of language innovation, memory-based thinking-by-analogy may be inferior to token-type-token abstract reasoning that is needed if one wants to go beyond what one has rote-learned. Ergo, with mnemotechniques being well known to most language teachers, a practice book on pattern retrieval (one of Michael Lewis’s LA guidelines, by the way) might be an equally appealing idea 😉

10 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good point, Anna – and it’s worth pointing out that Skehan’s three-part model for language aptitude includes not just ‘having a good memory’, but also ‘having the capacity to see patterns and infer rules’. (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have his book to hand, but I think this is what you mean by token-type-token abstract reasoning).

10 04 2011

Skehan indeed does (mention language analytic ability as a component of language aptitude). He, however, favours memory pointing out that the more advanced the learner is the more memory matters. While I (mostly) agree, my point is: being advanced has more than one meaning.

10 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks, Scott.

I wonder if for many learners, it would be more beneficial to instruct them on conscious memorization of, firstly, language they find *personally interesting*, rather than just trying to remember en masse, as it were, or remember language that I was choosing for them to memorize.

If, just for example, I say to a class, *choose* 5 lines or phrases – personally interesting for you – that have occurred in today’s lesson to memorize and test each other on next lesson, would this be a better approach than *me* telling them what to memorize for the same kind of activity?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


10 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

I think, yes, absolutely – it would be better if the learners chose their own texts for memorization. In this way they would be more invested in them. I think I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how my learning by heart of a number of poems in German – something I decided to do myself – helped me develop a ‘feel’ for German when I studied it at secondary school – and I can still remember whole chunks of these poems. I doubt that those poems would have had the same ‘spell’ had they been selected for me by the teacher.

6 03 2018
Andrea Bricchetto

Dear Scott,

your article re-awakened in me the will of taking my teaching skills to the next level, so, thank you.
I often choose the articles for my students and they find them extremely inspiring. I also agree with Mr. Darkbloom’s viewpoint when he points out the importance of letting the students choose for themselves the passages they want to memorize. As I often state, inspiration must come first!

Grazie infinite,
Thank you so much


10 04 2011

People intuitively disdain rote because a) it’s not communicative and b) it involves some fairly hard work on the part of the student. But I don’t think anyone can deny that rote and mnemonics are extremely effective ways of learning just about anything. The problems with such behaviourist methods occur when you progress beyond a beginner level and you need more pragmatic, interactive and social contexts to develop your skills, and that’s why an immersion environment is really the best way to learn.

But there is a value in rote. Take multiplication tables or the alphabet as rudimentary examples; I don’t think it’s possible to learn them without rote but once you put in that initial ‘grunt work’ then the formulas transfer from your working memory to you long-term memory and they become ingrained procedurally.

I think the optimum way to do rote is to keep it to structures of seven words or less and drill yourself ten times per day, over ten consecutive days. The working memory can handle chunks of several words quite comfortably. Word pairs are much harder than longer phrasal chunks because they have less context to hang on to. Lists of isolated words are likewise the least effective way and you don’t get any syntactical benefit from them. Yet that’s how I learned Italian in school and I still see people persevering with this method. It riles me because it’s so dull and ineffective.

At every stage of the learning process light repetition is necessary in some form or another because you forget and because language learning is a non-linear pursuit which means you continually have to go back and revisit old topics, situations, words and structures. In this light I think the real skill of the teacher and the course designer is to elegantly fuse this need for repetition with genuinely engaging and interesting activities and content.

10 04 2011
Josh Lange

Memorization of long lists of language is to ELT what memorization of historical facts is to general education: superficial. Psychologist Howard Gardner asserts that this type of education has left a gaping hole in our so-called ‘advanced’ systems.

In EAP situated in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet country situated in Asia, UCL teachers just had the opportunity to mark Oral Presentations, many of which were scripted and lifeless. These presenters were marked down whereas presenters offering a lively presentation with some language errors received marks for audience awareness and information transfer. Goodbye extemporaneity, think again maestro!

Using a movie line in a conversation doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about, it just means that you have memorised some lines.

11 04 2011


Unless it happens to be relevant. You will always find opportunities to use recently encountered ideas, phrases and vocabulary. Synchronicity works like that. If you read a good book or watch a good film over and over, and it really appeals to you and changes your worldview then I think, subconsciously or consciously, it does affect the way you speak and write.

10 04 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

Scott, I absolutely agree, aptitude and memory are key issues when it comes to language learning. Yet my conclusions are quite different.

In my (German, adult education) reality, people who come to me often make statements like this: I’ve always been rotten at language learning, because my memory is so bad. I just don’t understand the grammar, and I can’t remember any words.

Most people in Germany have enjoyed at least 6 years of school English, equivalent to at least 1200 hours of tuition and learning. The vast majority is still stuck somewhere between A1 and A2. English speakers sometimes get a different view, simply because they only get to talk to the confident few.

Maybe the reason for this abysmal situation (are there any places where this is better, outside Scandinavia I mean?) is very simple. At the heart of conventional language teaching, there is rote learning. And the way it’s put into practice just kills the innate language learning ability. This holds true irrespective of all the good intentions of textbook authors or teachers. It has certainly survived all the attempts to kill it off, maybe due to the lack of alternatives.

Here are my thoughts, which tie in neatly with the ideas of PDL / language psychodramaturgy. The more positive your relationship with a foreign language, the more use you will make of your abilities, i.e. the higher your aptitude will be. This is the subjective view of the learner, the only valid one if you want to be learner centred. With that relationship, you will be happy to read and listen, even to memorize poems and songs, or film script passages for that matter. Any conventional techniques (word lists, grammar exercises etc. ) would only slow you down, you’re better off reading and listening.

Without this relationship, any learning attempt will be painful and tedious, your aptitude will slump, your memory will deny service. You will stop acquiring unless you are force-fed (or motivated, as some people say). During the real lengthy process of LA, your attitude will of course meander between those states, with a tendency towards the latter under second language learning conditions.

Hence in my view, it’s relationship that “underpins every aspect of successful language learning”, not memory. The use of memory is but a consequence.

What strikes me as odd is the approach that seems implied by Ding’s report: Let’s spend a couple of thousand hours learning text, and then maybe we will have established a bond with the language that makes us feel good and allows us to start doing something useful. Why would you do that when you can be constructive from the very start and reach that result in a fraction of the time, without an exceptional aptitude?

12 04 2011

Yes, Klaus! learning by heart would be my preference. It’s more than just a more poetic way of saying memorization, isn’t it?

I must find Julian Edge’s list of what successful language learners have reported. Liking the language they’re learning was one of the key elements.

10 04 2011

I wonder to what degree rote memory serves EFL learners compared to ESL learners. I studied Japanese in a vacuum for one year – one 90 minute class a week at beginner level – and found memorising patterns and phrases a key to unlocking the language. I was studying with a good friend of mine who also happens to be 30 years my senior (he’s also my aikido teacher) and it was interesting to see his approach. My father takes a similar approach to language learning and is a similar age.

He coined two comical and memorable nemonics:

To understand Japanese for “last / this / next week” he used “Sean Connery” to remember “SEN (last) / KON (this) / RAI (next)

and made the following story to remember days of the week

“NIECHE GETS-A CAR and commits SUIcide practicing MOCK KENdo”

relates to NICHI / GETSU / KA / SUI / MOKU / KIN / DO

This allowed him to store and retrieve the language while studying in an input scarce environment, and it was novel enough that I remembered in the same way, and found it immensely useful when I first arrived in Japan.

Last December I was lucky to see Paul Nation at the ETJ Expo in Japan. One of the telling comments he made was that using word cards with L1-L2 matches is one of the most effective ways of improving vocabulary – and he laid down the challenge to opponents of the idea to produce studies to back their claims as he was able to reel off an array of research to back up his point.
The techniques he was describing were memorisation techniques that lift the learner quickly to a higher level of understanding.
The tendency to hold ‘communicative’ activities as paramount seems to be consigning even the best of the ‘drudge’ method babies to a margin swimming around in cold EFL bath water.


10 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

“Maybe the reason for this abysmal situation (1200 hours of language learning resulting in A1/A2) is very simple. At the heart of conventional language teaching, there is rote learning.”

Klaus, while I agree that the learner’s attitude towards the target language cannot be underestimated, maybe the scenario you’re describing has a lot to do with the KIND of rote learning students are engaged in. Maybe memorized grammar rules don’t cross over into spontaneous production and neither do long wordlists followed by meanings or translations. Maybe it’s chunks of language that do lend themselves to rote learning after all.

Could this new book be the missing link between Michael Llewis’ Lexical Approach (as well as Nattinger’s Lexical Phrases, of course) and mainstream ELT?

As a student of English in the mid/late 80s, I remember spending hours on end in the language lab, happily immersed in LG Alexander’s Fluency in English, which, at the time, was already generally regarded as a thing of the past. All the drills were fully contextualized and the contexts were downright bizarre to say the least. And yet, a good deal of the “grammar” I know today, in hinsight, I think I might have learned from that kind of unanalyzed, memory-bound, chunk-based pattern practice. How do I know that, you might be wondering. Well, I remember the EXAMPLES, not the rules: “The harder she works, the better, as far as I’m concerned”, “It if weren’t for that stupid woman in front, you’d be able to overtake”, “However polite she may be, I think it’s a mistake to hire her” and the list goes on and on.

25 years later, I can still remember those sentences. Maybe, in an EFL, input-inpoverished context (there was no Internet or cable TV at the time), that was the raw material I needed at the time to create my own “internal corpus” on the basis on which to create novel utterances. Maybe in Dfogarty’s case, his Spanish girlfriend played that role, minus the repetition element.

Maybe it’s about time we started looking at the kind of rote learning promoted by repetition and drilling in a slightly different light, especially in EFL contexts. Dismissing them out of hand on Behaviorist grounds doesn’t tell half the story, I think.

Scott, by the way, is the book out yet?

10 04 2011

Rote learning pays sooner or later especially if it’s fun and the learned material is often used in everyday life. I know a lot of people who actually learned English through learning English songs by heart.

11 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

Could language learners’ private speech be conceptualized as some sort of
“m+1” zone in which memory and interlanguage interact?

11 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, indeed it could. Private (or ‘egocentric’) speech has beeen the focus of research into sociocultural learning theory, where it is regarded as a transitional phase from other-regulation to self-regulation, or from outer speech to inner speech, and, ultimately, independent thinking and problem solving. This would suggest that a useful stage in internalizing new language items is sub-vocalization – what used to be called a ‘mumble drill’ or ‘mutter drill’. I.e. the teacher models a phrase or structure and then tells students: “Now say it to yourself a few times quietly”.

11 04 2011

One classic Calvin and Hobbes joke has the father lamenting “how is it i can remember an ad from 20 years ago, but cant remember what i just got up to do?”.

If, as Scott said somewhere, learning is just remembering what someone told you, then yes there must be a place for memorisation in language learning.

But, there must also be a need for the memory, and i think this is the point where language teaching comes in.

Thinking back on classes, how many times have you supplied language and heard/seen the learner go “oh!! Thats that word i remember from school!” It seems to me class can and perhaps should be the place to make sense of remembered things – of activating remembered things and moving them deeper into memory by allowing them to be associated with experiences, not just as a list: “making language memorable”.
In terms of memory strategies, i think some adults may be put out by talking of memory strategies as a subject – it seems somehow babyish, and isn’t dealing with language – which is what they’re there for. Teaching as facilitating learning, might be more about introducing different ways of recording words etc and allowing learners to decide which would be best for them as opposed to amassing lists.

11 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Darridge. Good point about allowing the learners to select the mnemonic techniques that work best for them. (I’m pretty sure Nick has an activity like this in his book).

Did I say that learning is remembering being told something? If only it were that simple! I did write somewhere that “learning is remembering understanding something” – but this is not an original idea – just something I remember understanding!

11 04 2011

What is memorization without motivation? Without imagination?

Cognivist scient-ism? Do we need to deconstruct the brain to better understand the mind?

Language learning is about hearts and minds, isn’t it? If the story gets learners’ attention, and they want to hear/see/tell/write about it again and again, should I be concerned with how neuroscientists think about the insides of our heads?

11 04 2011
Nick Bilbrough

Rob writes ‘What is Memorisation without motivation? Without imagination?’

This article by Earl Stevick suggests precisely that – that memory and imagination are processes which are strongly linked and dependent on each other.


12 04 2011

Thanks, Nick, for an article I hadn’t read in quite some time. No doubts about a link there, but the bearded men in white lab coats are still not welcome into my classroom. 🙂

11 04 2011
Nick Bilbrough

Luiz, your experiences remind me of an Angolan friend of mine, Francisco, who learnt his English through studying at a Russian university in the 1980’s. The basic procedure was that each day the class were given a text or dialogue and a recording of it, and they were asked to learn it by heart for the next day, when they would be tested on it. That’s was it – no roleplay, no free discussion, no information gap activities, in fact nothing communicative whatsoever.

Without ever having stepped foot in an English speaking country Francisco achieved a very high level of English through this approach, becoming an English teacher himself when he returned to Angola, and eventually the president of the Angolan English teachers’ association. But it wasn’t just the words/chunks/grammar contained in the texts that seemed to get learnt, Francisco claims that going through this process also gave him the tools to be able to work out the pronunciation of newly encountered words, and to use connected natural speech effectively.

Working with language teachers from many diverse settings, I’m finding that many of them (as in the Ding study) would count learning texts by heart as one of the most useful strategies employed in their own language development. I also think that many people (myself included) don’t see it as necessarily a chore, but rather as an interesting, and even creative task. I gave a rhyming childrens’ story book to each of the primary teachers on a course I was running and asked them to practise it so that they could tell it to one other person the next day. One teacher from Turkey learnt the entire book by heart (‘just for fun’, he said)

This is also borne out by the Ding study where he recounts how one learner said that he would get up in the middle of the night to play particular parts of a film again that he was struggling to remember exactly.

Learning texts by heart can bring a lot of satisfaction and confidence. I spent three years living in Brazil and three years living in Denmark, but my Danish is much more fluent than my Portuguese. I’m convinced that one reason for this is the time I spent studying drama, learning the lines of plays in Danish and then performing in them. Of course this wasn’t a purely mechanical process, it involved improvising around the script, linking the language of the text to movements and gestures, and exploring the emotional side of what I was saying.

I’m trying to redress the balance now by choosing Brazilian songs that I like and learning them by heart. What is interesting is that it seems to be helping me to notice areas of language that passed me by during my 3 years of living in Brazil, as well as giving me a kind of internal exposure to the language. I don’t have anyone around me now who I can speak Portuguese to, so I have to sing to myself and pretend I’m Brazilian! How sad is that!

As Scott says above, I think the fact that I have chosen the texts myself, makes it more motivating to learn them. I also think that memorization is compatible with approaches which work with emergent texts like Community Language Learning, Task based Learning and Dogme. Once a dialogue has been constructed in CLL -ask the learners to learn it by heart for example.

A Spanish teacher in my son’s secondary school uses a technique where she asks the class to write a text about a particular topic. She then reformulates what they’ve written, gives each learner their text back, and asks them to learn it by heart.

Of course there was a time, before printing, when learning things by heart was the only way we had of retaining anything. As we move more and more into an age where we what we know is increasingly being stored on the internet, rather than internally, does maintaining the skills of memorization take on a new importance?

11 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that fascinating comment, Nick. It seems that the house is fairly divided on the issue of memorization!

With regard to your last point – about the way digitization ‘threatens’ human memory, there is a school of thought that would argue that it’s far from being a threat – rather, the internet allows our (clunky, individual) memories to become more widely and communally distributed, better organised, and more reliable. And that trying to build a ‘private’ lexicon is a waste of time, because hand-held devices will be able to do it better, bigger, quicker… In the end, it may be ONLY the phatic stuff that’s worth remembering, because phatic communication is probably less easily replicated by digital means. Just a thought!

11 04 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

Scott, the way I read those comments, nobody’s really opposed to memorization. That would be foolish. Understandably though, one flinches when it’s sold as a panacea. “Enlightenment by repetition” just doesn’t appeal to westerners.

English conveniently offers two terms that are very telling indeed, “rote learning” and “learning by heart”. Maybe the divide is between those two, a clearly mechanistic and a more holistic view?

12 04 2011

Nick, have had much the same experience learning other languages.

As a teacher, my students tend to enjoy reading a story they understand, memorizing it, then acting it out much like stage or screen actors would. Another favorite is walking around the college campus during the first weeks of class with me pointing to an object (eg, log), saying the world three times while everyone listens (“log.. log… log”), then asking the group to repeat, moving from those who I sense can model for those who still struggle to get their mouths and minds around the word before rounding off with these ‘late bloomers’ repeating the word. We do this with ten words, always recycling the words from previous ‘stations’ along the way.
Learners always comment later in the course how they’ll never forget those ‘first ten words’.

12 04 2011

Sometimes I say the world, other times a word. 🙂

11 04 2011
Daniela A. Meyer

Definitely agree with Klaus, even if I haven’t read all of the other posts. Learning by heart is the trick. And also, there are certain things that do have to be learned by heart, such as language, chunks, expressions, conversation strategies, no? The internet would not be very helpful in the middle of a conversation… be it a phatic conversation or not. 😉 What do you think?

11 04 2011
Mark Kulek

Don’t L1 speakers use prescribed patterns and chunks? Don’t these chunks and patterns make the L1 speaker a native speaker? Then it makes sense to me that L2 learners need to memorize chunks and sentence patterns to be comprehensible.

It’s easy to practice chunks and patterns with kids through play, but I haven’t figured it out for my adult learners yet. Where as for the young learners, we go slowly with a lot of repition. As for the adults, well…they aren’t kids. Any ideas?

Mark in Gifu

11 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Don’t L1 speakers use prescribed patterns and chunks? Don’t these chunks and patterns make the L1 speaker a native speaker?

That reminded me of this extract from Michael Hoey’s Lexical Priming: “What distinguishes learners (or more accurately, types of learning) is not… whether they are native or non-native but how the primings come into existence. When the speaker is surrounded by evidence… the primings get built up inductively at variable speeds. When however the speaker is not so surrounded, other strategies need to be used” (p.184).

These other strategies – I would argue – include text memorization.

12 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

So far, all posts have tried to pin down memorization and language learners.

What is it that L2 teachers should memorize, our primings?

14 04 2011
John Rogers

Hi all, this is going to be relatively short because I’m running off to class, but…

I don’t think that we can simply disregard rote-learning as being superficial, particularly in light of research into the benefits of the rote-learning of lexical chunks.

Rote learning can benefit learners in several ways:

A) They aid communicative competence – this is especially true of functional chunks – often allowing learners to use structures beyond their current analytic competence (Wong Fillmore, 1976; Ellis, 1984)
b) They can be broken down later and analysed, thus aiding cognitive learning of structures etc (Nation, 2001, pg. 343; Schmitt, 2004, pg.12)
c) If we regard them as lexical items, they enhance vocabulary capacity. (Nation)

Ellis, R. 1984. ‘Formulaic speech in early classroom second language development’ in J. Handscombe, R. R. Orem, and B. Taylor (eds): On Tesol ’83: The Question of Control. Washington D.C. TESOL>

Nation, I. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Schmitt, Norbert. Formulaic Sequences: Acquisition, Processing and Use. City: John Benjamins Pub Co, 2004.
Wong Fillmore, L. 1976 ‘The second time around: cognitive and social strategies in second language acquisition. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Stanford University.

16 04 2011
Martin Slocock

“It’s easy to practice chunks and patterns with kids through play, but I haven’t figured it out for my adult learners yet. Where as for the young learners, we go slowly with a lot of repition. As for the adults, well…they aren’t kids. Any ideas?”

Hi there, As practicing patterns and chunks through repetition with adults, is *exactly* what I’ve been doing in my small language studio here in Budapest, I thought I’d take the time to explain what I’ve been doing (sorry it might be a bit ‘involved’, but as it’s a newish teaching paradigm, I have to go into a bit of depth) and as you asked… here anyway is an idea…!

What I did when writing the course is I identified all the key grammar of English of English (from the verb ‘to be’ through to advanced tenses) and all the key vocabulary (it in fact includes all the first 3000 words of English as identified by corpus research (British National Corpus etc) and embedded them in natural dialogues (Yes, a huge task, we’re talking 6 books and CDs and counting!) The 3000 words are all incorporated in their ‘natural environments’, the ‘grammars’ of the words, the key collocations, the sentence heads: all good patterns and chunks which you rightly identify – as does the Lexical Approach – as the key to successful language acquisition.. The students then participate in rapid-fire questions and answers with the teachers (not slow as with young learners that you mentioned, but full speed – no time for boredom here). (Incidentally, a key benefit of this approach for all students is how their pronunciation improves, as well as their listening skills). So far it’s all English, but then the course book describes in Hungarian all the key grammar points (and in fact translates all the sentences into Hungarian). (Grammar and Translation here making a daring revival after too long in the shadows – but only possible because grammar and vocabulary has been put back where kids learn it – embedded in real dialogue. My conviction is that Grammar and Translation *is* OK (even essential) but only if it comes after speaking and listening. (if it comes before it blocks the learning process, which is why so many are partly rightly tempted to dispense with them completely – bathwater and all!) Similarly the chunks and verb patterns are highlighted, again students are encouraged to notice the language only after using it. And then they take the CD’s home, and listen to them over and over again, learning the Grammar of English (as mentioned above) and the chunks, and the patterns, in the only effective way, through memorizing examples. But the great thing is how motivated students are to learn Grammar (and to learn about the language)now that it’s back in the context of speaking and listening. (Do students intuitively understand there is an anomaly in the standard practice of isolating grammar from its natural habitat? – I think they do, and that puts them off normal approaches to grammar) And the same with vocabulary, all the meanings of the key 3000 words of English are covered, and all the collocations ( I have to disagree with the flashcard revival – vocabulary must be learnt in context). The method so far could be summed up as follows: by inserting key grammar and lexis back where it belongs in speech, students are able to learn through repetition, and memorization, and importantly through their ears, not their eyes. The language is then described afterwards – this is a prescriptive and a descriptive approach. Similarly important is the dialogues are not only completely natural, but also situational – one student of mine says he remembers the dialogues by visualizing the situation of the speakers.
All this is stage one, stage two gets interesting because then (having learnt the patterns and chunks subconsciously the students are then given work sheets in the class of the same chunks (in Hungarian), and they have to reproduce the English chunks. Here they learn through producing the language, and their sense of achievement at this stage is palpable ( I would love to post a video of them doing this, but not now). ( And also extremely interesting because one of my students says that when she consciously tries to create these chunks, sometimes she is able to correct herself at the moment of utterance, by ‘hearing’ the correct answer from her subconscious memory.)

So the subconscious memory (importantly I feel) ‘corrects’ the conscious memory. But even more interesting is that the opposite seems to be true: the conscious memory corrects the subconscious. Let me explain: in the rapid fire question stage the learning is subconscious – no time for thinking. And all my Hungarian students at this stage, when trying to produce the English superlative form: (e.g.: ‘one of the most interesting websites’ always leave off the final ‘s’, they all say: ‘one of the most interesting website’) – a L1 interference. And this despite the fact that the correct form has been thoroughly modeled. This is important because it suggest that L2 errors are ‘innate’ / subconscious (which I certainly didn’t know – I presumed they were conscious). Anyway back to the description:

This second phase corresponds to the idea, mentioned by Scott in his introduction, of actively retrieving the language that has been implanted through repetition into students’ subconscious memory. And the third phase of the class is ‘real communication’. The students are given a topic *completely unconnected* to the language that has been covered in the course (more about this gap later) and following a completely natural group conversation (student numbers are always limited to 6, students’ sentences are reformulated, put on the board, and recorded. To start with we didn’t record at this stage, but all the students reported that without hearing these notes (in contrast to the ‘course proper’) they were unable to remember this new language. So the conclusion regarding memorization that we’ve come to from our on-hands experience here: It’s difficult to remember anything without two ingredients 1) hearing something (learning with your ears not your eyes 2) repeating it a lot (six to ten times at least).

And with regard to the other question, yes pattern and chunk-focused repetition with adults can be done, and not only do they enjoy it (a lot) but we’re seeing some very encouraging results (significantly in the state spoken exams). Hope that helps (it at least demonstrates that your idea that patterns and chunks is important for adult learners, is right on target) and I hope Luiz above is right in saying that the research cited could be a way into the mainstream for Lexical Approach-type ideas. Personally, I’m too busy with teaching and writing this course to know if publishers or mainstream ELT give any credibility to this kind of approach, but I think one of the most compelling arguments in favour of such repetition / memorization focused approaches is that (as in the case of the Chinese students in the study, and as in Luiz’s, Francisco’s and others’ actual learning experiences above ) they actually seem to work. Now, finally back to the ‘gap’ mentioned above. I think this approach does (maybe in a literal sense) represent a paradigm shift. The big question for me in language learning is where the gap between teaching and acquisition comes in. This gap normally occurs somewhere in the lesson –there is a presumption that there is some connection between teaching and acquisition. This connection to me is a moot point (again literally!) Does the approach I’ve described not shift the learning phase purely back to the learner? By inserting grammar and lexis back into speech (where we certainly learn it as children and where significantly repetition does play a key role) students can then acquire all the tools they need to communicate. (They could all do this – and some of our trial students do) as self-study. The second phase (you will notice there is an updated PPP vibe going on here) allows them to produce /activate the very same language under controlled conditions (to make it conscious) And it’s at this stage that the teacher can help with questions, can help describe what’s happening with the language that has been successfully produced. Can help students notice, but not before they’ve produced.

And with the learning and practise of language covered in these first two stages (the Present and Practise phases) the teacher is then free to concentrate not on language learning, but on production. The first phase then is up to the student, the second is teacher and student working together to describe the language that has been produced, and to understand it, and the third (Mind the Gap!) is when the language can be used freely. It’s this desire to insert this ‘freedom’ into the learning phase, rather than the using phase, that for me represents a key question in modern language models.
(Another interesting point which I can’t go into here, is how this whole approach helps students notice the key differences between L1 and L2, but after successfully producing the language, so such differences don’t block, but instead facilitate)

And to finish off a little provocatively, a question for Klaus perhaps? If your students spent those 1200 hours listening to a massive amount of targeted English listening input, which they could, as with the Chinese students,memorize subconsciously through repetition, and then in their classes recreate these chunks and sentences, so they knew them actively (and bear in mind we’re talking about all the 3000 words that research has shown is key to expressing meaning – all embedded in their most productive collocations and patterns ) would that not drag them kicking and screaming beyond the A1 and A2 level which you rightly identify as a place where many get stuck? (I have a 12-year old secondary student in one of my classes and her progress in 4 months of just two lessons a week is striking) But they wouldn’t be kicking and screaming, because one of the most encouraging aspects of this approach, is that students spend hours listening to this content home, they seem to ‘get’ that learning grammar and learning through dialogue, rather than studying it at a distance, makes sense. A missing link? – I don’t know about that, but certainly a way of making the Lexical Approach (‘live’…), of bringing it into the classroom, and to return to the original question, a way of teaching patterns and chunks to adult learners (which again you are right in identifying as key to successful English teaching) Sorry for the length, everyone, but you can’t say you weren’t warned!!!

16 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom


Wow, that’s a really nice, long explanation… Thanks!

The best thing I take from your message is that you are obviously very motivated and put a lot of hard work into your teaching. That is to be applauded.

If you’ll allow me, I’m going to indulge in a little provocation of my own…

You say *it’s a newish teaching paradigm*, but to be perfectly frank I can’t see any even modern about what you’re doing – never mind *new*. It sounds like you’re trying to re-invent the wheel… and not a particularly sound version of the wheel at that.

You mention this quick fire question and answer first stage? Maybe I’m wrong, but that just sounds like Audio-lingual.
And constructing your own coursebooks and CDs from a core inventory… why bother, when there are many coursebooks now that do a reasonable job of this already? Not to mention, very good dictionaries that can be used in the classroom or even internet searches perhaps. Why not just go through the current material and use what you like?
And what about these *natural dialogues*? Again, this is something that many coursebooks do quite well these days.

I could go on but the main point I want to make here is:

At no point in your lessons do I see any meaningful use of the learners’ own voice or ideas or opinions. Where is the personalization? Why are you not bringing the learners lives in the classroom? Every teaching expert these days seems to be in a agreement that it is essential to allow the learners to engage in dialogue that isn’t just prepackaged and prescribed by the teacher, but comes from primarily from the learner, which is then guided from by the teacher to aid communicative competence.

Memorization and many other techniques that are associated with times gone by can of course play a part in the modern classroom, but it seems striking to me that all this wonderful motivation you have and desire to help people with English would be much better assisted if you actually read the current ELT literature and took proper notice of all the research backing it, rather than just plough ahead and with what you consider to be new or innovative, when it is probably nothing of the sort.

Personally speaking, I would say everything you’re doing is something I’ve done in the past or continue to do and am trying to find a better solution. How do I know what I’m doing is not ideal sometimes? I read and reflect and try stuff out and reflect and talk to others and reflect etc, and read and read some more…
I make mistakes all the time, as I grope into the void of this thing we call teaching. This is all part of learning, of course and I love it.

Now, you may come back at me with something like… well, my students seem to enjoy learning this way. If you think this, consider the following: a) Many learners don’t know any better (that is, they’ve never tried other approaches in the classroom) b) Perhaps they simply are not telling you the truth (do you really encourage ‘honest feedback’?) c) Maybe their learning styles are perfectly suited to your approach (I really doubt this, considering the diversity and individuality of learners – have you investigated this?).

Anyway, enough from me – I’m obviously no expert. Here are so many books to check out, but here are some basic and important ones to start with (if you haven’t already):

Anything by:
Scott Thornbury (particularly ‘Teaching Unplugged)
Geoff Petty (Particularly ‘Teaching Today’)

Good luck.

PS: Again, I’m obviously no expert here… I just felt I should give my opinion. 🙂

17 04 2011
Luiz Otavio

Mr Darkbloom,
While I also felt that Martin’s approach was perhaps lacking in personalization tasks (though we can’t tell for sure based on his description alone – guess we’d need to see the material, scripts of lessons etc), I think he deserves a lot of credit for trying to break away from the current orthodoxy, however audio-lingualish some of the techniques might seem at first glance.
From what I understood – and I could be wrong – Martin is trying to shift the emphasis of his teaching away from ANALYSIS towards SYNTHESIS, and he’s been trying to do that via skill-getting work that is based on chunking activities rather than gap-fill-type activities (which mainstream ELT seems to be very, very fond of these days).
So I’m assuming that what he calls “rapid-fire questions/answers” is skill-getting work meant to help student commit lexical phrases to memory rather than the kind of “I go to school – he – he goes to school” pattern practice that plagued early audio lingual models.

18 04 2011
Martin Slocock

Hi, Yes, Luiz, you’re right there. I *am* trying to move completely away from an analysis based model, or rather keep the analysis (for those who find it useful) for after production of language. Any why? Because I’m convinced that analysis, if it comes first, can prevent acquisition of language. Yes, synthesis would be a good description: I’m putting lexical chunks / grammar items back into speech, so that language can be remembered subconsciously through massive exposure, and repetition, and then activated consciously. (Anyone watching a child learn a language will see first that they learn huge numbers of unanalyzed chunks, and only at a later date, consciously and often painfully, try to put the chunks back together, to create their own meanings – this is what my students are doing). Also, I’m moving completely away from a gap-fill model – I believe it’s possible and even perhaps common for students to be able to complete a traditional Grammar gap-fill workbook (or for that matter a traditional classroom course from beginner to upper-intermediate level) without being able to *activate* their language in any meaningful sense (I’m guessing if we’re honest, we all know, this active language inability is *very* widespread) . Everything I’m doing is about activating language, which is why I did feel the need to try (what I maintain!) is a new approach. So thanks for your input, Luiz, and also Mr Darkbloom, thanks a lot for your response, to which I will make a few comments:
I do (of course!) believe what I’m doing *is* new. In itself, introducing the Lexical Approach to an audiolingual model *would* be new. But it’s more than that: it’s trying to address a particular problem: why can’t students actively use the language they’re taught?
So my answer, based on research and intuition, is that one of the main reasons is that in
order to remember something we need massive repetition, and in order for massive repetition to occur, the key language items need to be inserted in real speech. And then
it occurred to me: isn’t this how children learn? Firstly by massive exposure, by massive repetition, and then by consciously building the language they’ve heard?: do children ever produce a new word, that they’ve never heard before? They don’t. And nor will our students. It therefore follows that students *must* be exposed to a massive amount of language. But that in itself is not sufficient. They need to be able to produce this language, and this is what the activation phase of my course does. By the
way, this activation phase doesn’t have to be in the classroom (although personally I think it’s neat, for the teacher to help students ‘notice’ new language once the students have produced it.) This activation phase (where students use prompts in their own language to produce chunks in English) can happen on a mobile device. So on their mobile device students will 1) Hear completely natural dialogues- incorporating all the key grammar and lexis of English, dealt with lexically / i.e. ‘chunked’. 2) Then students will read on their mobile device a complete translation / focus on form / analysis of everything they’ve heard. 3) Then students, on a third screen, will be given prompts in their own language to try and create the language they’ve already learnt. They can systematically work through the key grammar and lexis of English, which they will learn subconsciously and consciously.
It’s perfect for students (because my students are spending hours of personal time listening to the CDs) It’s perfect for teachers, because every lesson they have ready-made homework, which they can check with their students. (and remember in many cultures teachers do actually have a sympathy for grammar) But the last point, is that it *does*, (in contrast to your understanding) open up great new opportunities for personalization. For this reason: if the vast majority of grammar and vocabulary has been covered by self-study, if the ‘learning’ has already taken place, does that not mean that in the class, once the homework has been checked, with the activation phase mentioned above, that the class can be as free, and as relevant to students’ needs as you like? My experience here certainly suggests so. The students who have benefitted from this course include 1) a young doctor going to a medical conference in Vienna, where she said she could converse socially after the conference with ease (and surprised herself, when the sentences she needed, just ‘appeared’). 2) A film maker who can suddenly understand the phone calls he has to make to India as part of his work 3) A young woman with a sister in England, whose sister keeps commenting on the completely natural expressions she’s able to actually use 4) Two students who after years in other schools, found the confidence to pass the spoken exam they needed as part of graduation. From this I conclude, and I think this is such an important are of study: in order to help students actively use English for their own varied needs, do we not need to dispense with this completely polarizing idea of personalized language, versus ‘core’ language’? Do we not need to recognize, that for successful personalized language to occur, that the ‘core language’ must somehow be taught? That’s what my course is attempting to do, and I think that’s why, I do think it’s something new, and although it’s not going to get any mainstream support, it’s something I’m finding very rewarding to do.

18 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom


Thanks for your response. I’m still not so clear on a few points. Please enlighten me.

How are you bringing your learners’ lives and experiences into the learning?

Do you not see any use in focusing on the learners’ own *emergent* language, rather than just focusing on prepackaged core items – before the fact, as it were?

20 04 2011
Martin Slocock

Thanks for the question, Mr Darkbloom, and sorry for the delay.
How am I bringing learners’ lives into the course? By proposing a new learning model in which the need for personalization, which I take to be fundamental, isn’t in direct contradiction with the need to focus on the most important language, which I also take to be fundamental. The whole point here is the contradiction between on the one hand the teaching of Core language, and on the other hand the ‘personalization’ of the classroom. I’m saying that these two ideals, in current classroom practices, – including unplugged teaching etc., are irreconcilable, by which I mean: Students can either learn the core language at the expense of personalization (i.e. what the bad old teacher-centred approaches unsuccessfully attempted) or students can learn in a personalized classroom (responding to students’ emergent language etc.) at the expense of learning core language. And yet, and here is the great shortfall of newer approaches, the need for knowing the core language of English in order to be able to use it, is clear, both intuitively, and from research (so, Paul Nation tells us for example, “The learner needs to know the 3000 or so high frequency words of the language. These are an immediate high priority and there is little sense in focusing on other vocabulary until these are well learned..” and Jeremy Harmer comments, regarding the frequency information that all the main dictionaries now provide: ‘This (frequency) information is gold dust for the language learner’, because it helps them know ‘which words are really worth learning, and knowing how to use’). Notice that ‘knowing how to use’.
So, given that both coverage of core language, and personalization are *both*necessary to effective language learning, and given that clearly as aims they effectively exclude each other (how long would it take for the 3,000 most common words of English to naturally ‘emerge’ in a classroom?) my course is an attempt to make it possible for these two necessities to co-exist in a course. How? By inserting all the key grammar, chunks, lexis, all the 3000 keywords of English, into speech, which the students can learn by self-study at home (which as the Chinese students in the quoted study show, and as my students also show, is the only way anyway for students to activate the language that’s learnt, because it opens up the possibility of *memorization*) The fact that the language has been learnt at home means that the teacher is utterly free to respond to emerging language, and to make the course as personalized as they want. To me this seems quite clear – it’s a way of making the two requirements of coverage of core language on the one hand, and personalization on the other hand, available to the learner.

20 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

*how long would it take for the 3,000 most common words of English to naturally ‘emerge’ in a classroom?*

Maybe I’m missing something here, but language simply *emerges* when learners try to use it for communication, right? So, isn’t it up to the teacher to guide conversations and activities in this process and for them to help out with responding to learners’ miscommunication with *especially* core language items? If so, then the teacher can *push* learners into *discovering/noticing* any core language item at any stage. All the teacher has to do is be aware of things the item’s relative frequency and of terms that may be of particular utility for the learners given their specific learning aims. It is up to the teacher to bring to the learners attention common collocations etc.

And as for how *personalization* plays a role here, I still am none the wiser.

Martin, I’d really like to know, for example, what a first lesson might look like in a new course of yours. What kinds of activties do you do?

Again, maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see there has to be any conflict at all between teaching/highlighting core language items with focusing on emergent language in the classroom.

Looking forward to your answer.


20 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

*how long would it take for the 3,000 most common words of English to naturally ‘emerge’ in a classroom?*

This would make a fascinating basis for a research project. Any of you wannabe doctoral students want to take up the challenge?!

21 04 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

**how long would it take for the 3,000 most common words of English to naturally ‘emerge’ in a classroom?*
This would make a fascinating basis for a research project. Any of you wannabe doctoral students want to take up the challenge?!*

I’m not applying, this kind of research really isn’t my cup of tea. Still I wonder what all those terms would mean if I did?

What’s a “word” in this context? stem, lemma, expression,… ? And in which English? Spoken / written, towards which regional / social / subject matter context?

What does “emerge” mean exactly? Is it that it has occurred at some stage, coming from somebody, or does it mean that every participant “knows” each of the 3000 words?

“knows” in what sense then? Can the participant use the word spontaneously in her speech, differentiating between various meanings? Or does she just recognise it, while being able to infer meaning in context? Or something in between?

Why 3000? Who uses the 3000 most frequent words (whatever that means) in his speech? Who uses 3000 words at all, and if so, how do they intersect with “those” 3000? German post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer, an extremely experienced politician, well-read, focused, witty, successful (in his own proper sense at least) and lots more, reportedly made do with 900.

20 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

Can we realitically expect, though, a core set of 3,000 words to naturally emerge arising out of meaning-focused tasks? Wouldn’t students’ profiles, age, life experience and interests somehow skew the ensuing lexis? Wouldn’t you wind up with a fairly organic, student-driven lexical syllabus that might bear more or less resemblance to the top 3,000?

20 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom


The student-driven syllabus, in my experience, often is more organic (read: more personal) and that, on the whole, for me is a very good thing.

If a word comes up that the learner needs to communicate an idea and it may not be among the most common words, I am quite conscious of this and so I try to balance the noticing and chunking of low-frequency words with work on high frequency ones (and their frequent grammar patterns, of course)

So, for example, if I were helping learners understand the poem Scott just cited, I could easily at some point bring the learners back to more frequent language.

*I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.*

Although these lines (and the poem generally) may be stylistically quite difficult to grasp for learners, there are several rather common words at play here that could easily be used for some extra chunking/collocation work, e.g. the words *meet* or *land* or *said*.

Needless to say, there are a host of activities (including memorizing) that could be utilized in this process.

Personally, I really like to go off the learners curiosity about what we should focus on. So, in the case of the poem, for example, I would, at some point, be asking the learners to select *personally interesting* lines and phrases for us to focus on, rather than me just jumping in there and choosing what I think they should be interested in. Focus on meaning and form as well as my suggested extra work would follow…

20 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

The student-driven stuff is, I agree, much more likely to stick, Mr. Darkbloon. That’s not something I’d ever dispute, really. And you’re absolutely right in trying to strike a balance between the high-frequency (and, paradoxically, often more inconspicuous) lexis on the one hand and the more idiosyncratic words and expressions on the other.

But, you see, in the poem example, you’re trying to strike that balance via input, which allows you to pre-select the noticing-worthy items in case students seem oblivious to them.

Can we help students create that sort of organic syllabus via meaning-focused output? Yes, aboslutely. How much resemblance would the ensuing lexicon bear to the top 3,000? I don’t know. THAT, I think, would depend on the students. (I’m not talking about grammar words, which would emerge regardless of context, student profile etc)

As Scott suggested, this would definitely be an interesting research topic.

20 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

*Can we help students create that sort of organic syllabus via meaning-focused output? Yes, aboslutely. How much resemblance would the ensuing lexicon bear to the top 3,000?*

I suppose that would still depend on what the teacher chooses to focus on from their output when giving the feedback.

I’m actually doing a few purely speaking unplugged/emergent language *elementary* level classes at the moment. They are actually one-to-ones, so the language coming in/up is solely what the learner and I produce in our conversations. Just from the first 10 lesson in the learner’s (shared) notebook I can read at least one use of many of the top verbs, nouns and adjectives. Here is just a sample of some nouns:

*time(s)* (how much/last/next time, many times)
*year(s)* (about/for one year, next/last year, 65 years old)
*week(s)* (last/next week, in two weeks)
*way* (a different way)
*people* (English/Italian/fat/all/different/60,000 people)
*work(er/ing)* (go to/she has to/came to work, work-stress correlation, work(ing) in Italy, the requirements of the worker)
*child(ren)* (the oldest/youngest child, second of three children)
*life* (all her life)
*town* (in a/the little town)
*night* (at/last night)
*company* (my company, the shareholders of the company)
*food* (fast/junk/the worst/good food)


20 04 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

Martin, I must say that I largely agree with Mr. Darkbloom. I appreciate the panache with which you follow your own approach, and also the vim with which you insist on your own thinking. Yet somehow I feel that, even if I knew more about your teaching practice, I would remain sceptical.

What feels most uncomfortable to me is the idea that personalization and core language could be equally fundamental. I’d agree with the former, but disagree with the latter. I believe that there are sometimes successful language learners even in the traditional classroom simply because those lucky few manage to personalize even the gibberish they are supplied with.

As for the core elements, you don’t need to stress them unless you think very traditionally. That’s simply because they are ubiquitous. As soon as you deal with language rather than textbook fragments, they will occur in abundance. As soon as you do it in a personal way, they will get picked up and used. That’s talking from experience.

In a PDL classroom, going from zero to A2 in an easy language (like from German to English) usually takes less than 100 hours of “instruction”. Maybe other approaches yield similar results. Since this can be done while having fun, why would you rely solely on memorization?

Even before that threshold, learners can comfortably read “The Cat in the Hat” or listen to eslpod.com or do countless other things. Afterwards, a world of authentic language gradually opens up to them. We exploit this capacity with a variety of methods, many of which use a lot of repetition.

Sometimes we even get people to memorize text, but no one is ever required to. As a general idea, we use language that’s memorable by itself – poetry. So far I haven’t noticed a shortage of poems in the English language, so why would I attempt to create new material – especially if I’m not a poet myself?

20 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

So far I haven’t noticed a shortage of poems in the English language, so why would I attempt to create new material – especially if I’m not a poet myself?

True, although poetry is (generally) a fairly restricted genre, favoring low frequency vocab, or mid to-high frequency vocab used in rarefied ways. (Witness:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read… etc)

The issue came up during a session at IATEFL where Averil Coxhead (of the Academic Word List) was talking up the potential of (video) gaming as a source for vocabulary acquisition – but this would only work if the games involved a high proportion of high frequency vocab, as compared to, say, traveller, antique, visage, trunkless, etc.

21 04 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

Scott, you did a post on poetry, some time ago, didn’t you? This is very important to us PDL people, and specifically to me, but I didn’t comment, it seemed so far away.

To cut a longish story short, I don’t take just any poem, I choose it. The criteria are, roughly speaking:

1. It needs to facilitate a focus on certain aspects of the language that I find important for what we do now. For instance prosodic aspects

2. It needs to help initiate creative processes. For instance we use short poems to create connections between language, stress / rhythm and physical movement. Another idea is of course to have people write similar poems.

3. As a trainer, I need to relate to it. Otherwise I can’t reach the main goal: Working with it needs to be is plain fun for everybody.

I hope you understand that so far I’ve always chosen not to choose Shelley, or Keats, not even Shakespeare or Byron. I’m always open for inspirations though!

As for “a high proportion of high frequency vocab, as compared to, say, traveller, antique, visage, trunkless, etc.” – I fail to see how that could possibly matter. Unless when you prefer dwelling in the walled garden of syllabi and textbooks. Video games that talk a lot for language learning? That’s cool, period.

22 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Klaus – the P is for Poetry thread can be found here, and on the whole you’re correct in thinking that I am a great fan of studying – and even memorizing – poems for language learning. I still remember the whole of ‘Hälfte des Lebens’, with its sombre last lines:

Die Mauern stehn.
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen

While it gave me a good feel for German syntax (and melancholy!), as a schoolboy studying German in New Zealand, the chances that I would subsequently use – or even encounter – either ‘klirren’ or ‘Fahnen’ in natural contexts is fairly remote. This is the problem – it seems to me – of memorizing literature, especially non-modern literature. If we assume that a core vocabulary of some 3000 high-frequency words is the ‘threshold’ that enables non-specialist language comprehension and production, literature alone is unlikely to provide that core – or, rather, it eventually will, but a great deal of low frequency vocabulary may have been ‘learned’ in the meantime. (Another possible research project?)

28 04 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

Heinrich Heine is wonderful, isn’t he? In order to use a poem in class, it has to display a certain formal rigour. And Heine specifically manages that, while remaining palpable, understandable. Still, I’ve rarely found opportunities for using Heine. He turns out to be harder than you think, you need longer passages, and I don’t do a lot of German anyway.

I’d love to though, especially when I read Heine. He’s the immediate proof for how beautiful that language can be. He seems to urge you to memorize him, a temptation, and I’ve always been fond of learning things by heart. My own linguistic biography is unthinkable without this. I’m convinced, this can be a powerful source for language development. But how about my students, do they feel the same? Well, by and large, no. Not a bit.

I must admit, in what little time we have in class, I try to kindle that feeling, just a little. If what we do together allows my participants to like the sound and feel of the language more, like it happened to you with those Heine lines, I don’t give a pair of dingo’s kidneys about word frequency (Another source of language. My Aussie friends liked that one a lot back in the days, that’s how I came to like it too).

I tell people that there is intensive reading / listening (like poetry or, more importantly, song lyrics, or anything you are likely to learn by heart) and extensive reading / listening (books and other stuff, CI in Krashen’s sense). Both are great, but you get your words more from the extensive kind. Certainly the top 2000 or 3000 can’t be avoided, if you really get into extensive reading or listening. If lots of CI is the cake, poetry is the icing. And I must admit, I eat many cakes just for the icing.

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