A is for Automaticity

26 02 2012

Class photo: thanks to Lucy Bodeman

I have a debt to repay.

Sometime in the late eighties I attended a talk given by Stephen Gaies (the then editor of TESOL Quarterly) at the North American Institute in Barcelona. The topic was fluency. Apart from being an excellent speaker with a good line in personal anecdote, Gaies made an indelible impression by outlining, and demonstrating, a set of criteria for the design of activities that target ‘creative automatization’.

Automaticity (and I’m using automaticity in preference to automatization only because it’s marginally easier to pronounce) is defined in An A-Z of ELT as the ability to perform a task ‘without conscious or deliberate effort’:

In language speaking terms, this automatization process means being able to draw on a set of memorised procedures in order to take part in real-time interaction. Without these procedures (or routines) you would have to assemble each utterance from scratch, word by word, at the obvious expense of fluency.

Notice that I talk about ‘memorised procedures’ rather than ‘memorised chunks’. Because if automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language  – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity.

In his workshop, Stephen Gaies put a strong case for activities that were communicative – in the sense that there was a genuine desire to communicate – but that were also narrowly focused and formulaic – in the way that old-fashioned pattern-practice drills used to be.

As an example, he described the ‘Class photo’ activity, in which the students take turns to ‘pose’ the group, requiring the use of such ‘partly-filled constructions’ as V, stand next to W; X, stand behind Y;  Z, kneel in front of V, and so on. Once posed, the class photo is taken.

Sonia Omulepu and her class

The language that the task generates is communicative, in the sense that it is purposeful and reciprocal,  but also formulaic, while allowing a degree of creativity within relatively tight constraints. Moreover, there is lots of built-in repetition.  Gaies added that, by timing the class photo just ten minutes before the end of the lesson, an extra element of urgency is added, which is also conducive to the development of automaticity.

I was so taken by this idea, and the principles on which it was based, that I failed to register who first thought of it, assuming it was Gaies himself. The five criteria for creative automaticity became a staple of my teacher training sessions, and worked their way, re-phrased and unattributed, into the section on fluency in How To Teach Grammar. These criteria are:

Activities [that promote creative automatization] should be …

1. genuinely communicative  i.e. require students to make use of utterances as a result of a task-related need, rather than simply for the purpose of saying something.

2. psychologically authentic i.e. require students to allocate attentional resources to both the encoding and decoding of language, and to the effect of that language on events.

3. focused i.e. organised around one or a few functions and notions so as to establish particular utterances as characteristic exponents of particular functions/notions.

4. formulaic i.e. utterances must be short, memorizable, and multi-situational.

5. inherently repetitive

Ever since, I have been ‘collecting’ activity types that match these criteria. The classic Find someone who… is an obvious candidate, as are many guessing games, such as What’s my line? or What kind of animal am I? (“Do you have four legs? Can you fly? Do you lay eggs?” etc).

Going native, Cairo 1976

It was only last week, to my shame, that I accidentally discovered who originated these principles, including the ‘class photo’ idea. It appears in an article by Elizabeth Gatbonton and Norman Segalowitz, published in the TESOL Quarterly in 1988. As editor of that journal, Gaies would surely have mentioned this fact, but I was too dim to notice. Hence the debt I need to repay.

Over 20 years later the article still stands the test of time. The challenge of devising tasks that develop automaticity through the rehearsal and real-time deployment of memorised procedures is still as topical as ever – maybe even more so, as increasing credence is given to the view that fluency involves the seamless interweaving of both the second-hand and the new, of the formulaic and the creative, of phrase and grammar.


Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’, TESOL Quarterly, 22, 3.



25 responses

26 02 2012

Thanks, Scott.

Just to add for anyone who may wish to delve a little deeper, Norman Segalowitz’s recent book may be of interest:

Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency (Routledge, 2010)

In addition, I just discovered it also won an award from the Modern Language Association of America:

27 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil, for that reference. This goes straight onto my ‘wish list’.

26 02 2012
Jessica Mackay

Good morning Scott and everybody.

We were lucky enough to have Norman Segalowitz visit Barcelona in 2010 and 2011. I’m so sorry you missed it Scott, I know you would have really enjoyed it. The Segalowitzes are that rare breed of academic who place equal importance on the theory and the practice.
They’re still developing new activities to promote automaticity (harder to say that automatization IMHO!). In his seminars in 2010, Norman presented ACCESS; Automatization in Communicative Contexts of Essential Speech Segments (Gatbonton & Segalowitz, 1988, 2005).
According to Dörnyei (who else?) this is ‘a principled adaptation of communicative language teaching that aims to generate fluency by drawing on the theories of automatization and formulaic language.’ It is based on the principles you outline above.
I think I rabbited on about these ideas in your post on Repetition, a while ago now, and as there’s is no need for comments on your blog to be inherently repetitive, I’d just like to add to Phil’s recommendation above, some of the articles that are available on line, e.g

Click to access gatbonton.pdf

26 02 2012
Jessica Mackay

Oops! That Dörnyei reference:
Dörnyei (2009)The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition, OUP, p. 299

27 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jessica, for blowing my cover! Indeed, the reference to the original 1988 article (Gatbonton & Segalowitz) came up in reading the Dörnyei book. I was also intrigued by this later development, in terms of classroom practices that target fluency, as described in said Dörnyei, referring to a study by Taguchi (2007) in which the researcher

developed a dialogue-based teaching programme of grammatical chunks … consisting of an initial video presentation of the target dialogue, followed by choral and pair repetition of the text and rule explanation. Students then underwent structured drilling of the chunks within a communicative context, and finally they memorized and performed short dialogues that included the target sequences. … The results indicated a substantial development, with the range and number of the chunks performed by the students doubling over the training period.

While this approach combines features of both a communicative approach (allegedly) and more traditional audiolingual, dialogue memorization, I’m not sure if there is sufficient analysis and creativity to ensure that the memorized chunks become memorized procedures.

27 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that article, Jessica: it makes a useful addendum/sequel to the original 1988 one. I have ‘liked’ this quote (p. 336):

At the end of the day, the appropriate pedagogical question is not how many grammar rules have ben learned but how many useful, reusable utterances students can produce fluently, accurately and appropriately.

I also like the point that ‘teacher intervention is immediate and need-specific, and focuses on helping students express intentions at the moment of need’ (p.338) . This chimes nicely with the pedagogical approach described in an earlier post, P is for ‘Point of need’.

1 03 2012
Jessica Mackay

I dug out my notes from the Segalowitz seminar and a couple of things jumped out which seem relevant to some of your more recent blog posts.

He emphasised the mismatch between the mental processes in the real world and in the classroom context. Teachers need to develop learners’ flexibility of processing in order for them to be able to transfer their skills to new performance conditions. Performance can take place in ‘open’ or ‘closed’ environments. ‘closed’ environments = repetitive performance when all the variables are constant, e.g. weightlifting, whereas in an ‘open’ environment the goal posts are constantly shifting. If we translate this analogy to instructed SLA, then the classroom is simply too safe to recreate the conditions of learning in the wild.

My notes are a little hazy here but if I remember rightly, one practical suggestion to recreate more naturalistic conditions, incorporated into the ACCESS metholodogy, is that the learner should always publicly commit themselves to declare what they believe the outcome of a practice activity will be, e.g. ‘I think only half the class can swim’. This goes some way to ‘exposing’ the learner if they get it wrong.
I find this really interesting. Incorporating potential failure into the language classroom?

1 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for those further comments, Jessica. I like the idea of the learners having to publicly predict task outcomes, and I can see how, by adding a further incentive to listen to the answers to their own questions in a survey-type activity, this might encourage a greater investment of effort, as well as upping the ‘psychological authenticity’ factor.

Coincidentlaly, I just read an article in ELT Journal where learners are asked to set a target of how much L2, and how little L1, they hope to speak in the lesson, and then, at the end of the lesson, calculate the extent to which their target was met. It’s not exactly the same idea, but it does encourage some meta-awareness on the part of the learner. (Rivers, D. 2011.Politics without pedagogy: questioning linguistic exclusion, ELT Journal, 65/2)

1 03 2012
Jason West (@EnglishOutThere)

I really must read some Segalowitz, thanks for this Jessica! You wrote,

“If we translate this analogy to instructed SLA, then the classroom is simply too safe to recreate the conditions of learning in the wild. ”

I’d agree completely, in fact, why not prepare students in the classroom for learning experiences outside of the classroom or online and capture their conversations for them, their peers and their teacher to reflect upon later?

1 03 2012
Jessica Mackay

As well as affordances, the seminars also touched on embodied cognition and lexical priming. Is Prof. Segalowitz actually your alter-ego? 🙂

26 02 2012
Jason West

Thanks for this Scott, this kind of task and activity can be extended beyond the classroom into focused practice with members of the public and online using social media such as Facebook, Skype and Google+. The results are often extremely impressive. Over the last ten years I have developed some teaching materials that specifically support this kind of process. You can.listen to ‘before and after’ case studies here http://languagesoutthere.podomatic.com/

26 02 2012
Stephen Greene

Hi Scott,

I recently blogged about the difficulties of thinking in another language (it has been difficult for me at least). I guess one of the things about automaticity is that you don’t need to think in either language, at least consciously.

It was good to read this article as I realised that a number of the activities that I use encourage automaticity, but I never knew it.

27 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Stephen. Interesting question, this ‘thinking in another language’. I’m not sure that automaticity means that you don’t have to think (in one language or another), but that you don’t have to deliberate – if you can see the difference. Segalowitz (2003) puts it this way “when we perform aspects of a task automatically, we perform them without experiencing the need to invest additional effort and attention (or at least with significantly less effort and attention)” (p. 383). This, I think, is different from simply not paying attention. Perhaps it’s really about paying more attention to meaning than to form, but without loss of speed or accuracy.

‘Automaticity and second languages’, in Doughty & Long, (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Blackwell.

26 02 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Dear Scott,
Tricky as it is, I wish people would give more thought to the issue of automaticity. So thank you for your post.
I call it “tricky” because of the number of (entirely plausible) assumptions you need to make before you actually get to the core of the issue:
a. Output plays a role in language acquisition.
b. Output which is 100% meaning-oriented may not help students internalize discrete language items.
c. Form-focused output in itself won’t, either.

So, in this sense, the ideal compromise to address the omnipresent tension between getting things done and focusing on language would be the sort of form-defocused (I still like this term, coined by Keith Johnson years ago) practice (I’m using “practice” and “tasks” interchangeably) you’re describing. But I think these activities create an interesting paradox. Let me explain.

You describe task design that ought to enable students to use the language creatively rather than only proceduralize chunky language (though I would personally tend to describe lexical chunks more broadly and place them outside the travel phrase book realm – but that’s another story). But students seem to operate on a minimal-effort basis, so designing tasks that “trap” certain language items and make them essential (rather than only desirable) for successful task completion is extremely difficult, isn’t it?

So while the (great!) photo task will probably help students proceduralize the short commands (e.g.: stand next to W), what if we were to throw in “I want you to…” or “could you…” in the mix? Would students, left to their own devices, use those too? Maybe not, so it’d be up to the teacher to make sure those items get practiced, too, simply because they’re not essential to successful task completion. And this would probably apply to lots and lots of different chunks / constructions (I’m still struggling conceptually with this term) / structures and tasks, I believe.

So while it’s by no means a leap of logic to assume that form-defocused tasks that meet the five criteria you outlined can help students automatize procedures rather than only ready-made language, the sort of language flexibility that this sort of proceduralization requires seems to be at odds with the very nature of task design in that case. Does that make any sense?

27 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Luiz, I share your concerns — although I couldn’t have put them so eloquently. I recommend you read the 2005 article that Jessica links to above — it outlines a slightly more sophisticated pedagogy than the 1988 article, and recommends that teachers intervene “at the point of need” — so, in your example, if the teacher felt that the learners were underperforming during the ‘posing’ stage of the class photo activity he/she could introduce a more sophisticated variant of whatever form they were using, for example, ‘could you…’ or ‘I want you to…’. This contrasts with more orthodox task-based instruction, where this ‘upgrading’ kind of intervention would come after the event, not during it. Does that make sense?

27 02 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Yes, it does, absolutely. Thank you, as always! 🙂
I’ve always been slightly suspicious of these sorts of after-the-event interventions, be it delayed feedback in general or post-task scaffolding (“By the way, this is what you should’ve been saying for the past 40 minutes, ok? See you on Monday”), unless students are given opportunities for retrial – which I very very rarely see happening in class.
Intervention at the point of need is, I believe, a far more effective strategy, but one that is relatively hard for novice teachers (or even far more experienced teachers depending on their profile) to master. It does involve, after all, using one’s ear to listen to meaning and the other one, as it were, to listen to form + intervening skillfully.

26 02 2012

Adding to what Luiz has written, I wonder whether a pre- or post-task language focus in the task cycle, as is common practice among TBL-ers, is necessary to enhance creative automaticity. Unless this is the case, it seems likely that students, depending on their repertoire of utterances, would naturally use their L1 once they begin paying more attention to the task than the language.

I know my students are content to use English when they can express themselves without great difficulty but will switch to their L1 when communication in English is too difficult because they can’t find the words they need, they’ve little time, or they want to feel connected to classmates in a way that English doesn’t allow them to feel.

So where does the language come from (eg, ‘Stand next to…” “Can you move over just a little?”, etc.) if not a pre- or post-task focus?

For the class photo task, I can imagine my students:
– help each other by pooling the language they have at their disposal;
– put their heads to together to translate or guess the language;
– ask me for the language;
– find the language beforehand and bring it with them;
– reflect on the language they didn’t have for the task then do one or more of the above to fill in the gaps;

These are a few possibilities, but I’m not sure any of them would adequately map language onto memorized procedures.

As you can imagine, I see the Dogme approach as conducive to creative automaticity when the unplugged teacher keeps an eye open and an ear out for ways into tasks like those you’ve described, Scott.

This deserves more thought. Thanks for sparking my interest once again.


27 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Rob, I answered Luiz’s post above before reading yours – and yours is much the better response to the question “Where does output + one come from?” It’s the teacher’s interventions ‘at the point of need’ that make the difference, I think, between both a presentation methodology and a (traditional) task-based one.

28 02 2012
Jenny Frey

Thank you for this post! I’ve been working with my fluency class for five weeks now. We’ve been using the “4-3-2” activity and the “disappearing text” activity–I found both in the Canadian Modern Language Review:

Rossiter, M. J., Derwing, T. M., Manimtim, L. G., & Thomson R. I. (2010). Oral Fluency: The Neglected Component in the Communicative Language Classroom.

And now I am very excited to read the article you mention: Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988). This is exactly what I needed.

It seems to me that on one end of the spectrum simply giving students an opportunity speak freely is not always helpful. While drills, at the other end of the spectrum, are not always useful. Opportunities to practice creative chunks seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I love this idea!

You say you’ve been collecting activities that follow the criteria in your post. Have you published these activity ideas?

I’d love to learn more about this!

Thanks again!

28 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jenny, for your comment. Yes, the ‘4-3-2’ activity was another one that was described by Gaies in his talk – taking tunrs in pairs to talk on a subject to your neighbour for, respectively, 4 minutes, then 3, then 2, with consequent gains in automaticity.

Another old favourite is this one, apparently conceived by Donn Byrne, and purloined by me for How to Teach Grammar (Longman, 1999):

Step 1:

The teacher explains the situation: “You are street musicians. You dance, you sing, and you play an instrument. Your business partner has left to join a circus. So you are looking for a new partner – someone who can do the same things as you.”

Step 2:

The teacher draws the following grid on the board:

play sing dance

She elicits from the class the names of three kinds of musical instrument, three types of singing, and three dances. As students suggest ideas she writes these into the grid (adding the if necessary. For example:
[you have to imagine these organised into a table of three columns and four rows]

play sing dance
the violin opera the tango
the saxophone the blues the cha cha
the guitar folk the waltz

The teacher then asks the students to each choose from the grid one instrument, one singing-type, and one dance. This is “their street musicians act”. For example, they might choose the guitar, opera, and the chacha. Students are instructed to keep their choices “secret”.

Step 3: The teacher writes this formula on the board: Can you…? and elicits possible questions. For example: Can you play the saxophone? Can you sing the blues? Can you dance the cha-cha? Students are told that they have to now try and find their new partner, by asking as many other students at least three questions until they find someone who has chosen the same “combination” as they have. The students then stand up and move around asking their questions. Once into the activity, the teacher rubs Can you…? off the board.

Note that Gatbonton & Segalowitz might skip the initial stage in Step 3 – leaving it up to the students to see what exponents they might come up with, and feeding in ‘Can you…’ only if they drew a blank.

28 02 2012

Reading Gatbonton and Segalowitz’s insightful article on creative automatization, I came across some terms associated with it which, initially, I would not have expected to find in its description: ‘approach’, and ‘native input’.

28 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Almagro, but in 1988 neither of these terms had been ‘problematized’.

4 03 2012
Alannah Fitzgerald

Hi All,

One of the things that interests me most about this post and the comments related to it is the issue of attribution to the original work on automaticity by Gatbonton and Segalowitz. Attribution is essential whether you’re sharing resources in closed teaching and learning environments (e.g. classrooms, password-protected virtual learning environments, workshop and continuing professional development spaces) or through publishing channels using copyright or copyleft licences (e.g. books, research articles, blogs, online forum discussions). There is obviously a great amount of sharing and attribution going on in this discussion and the blogging platform is an enabler for this activity.

What also interests me is the behaviour around resource enhancement. As Scott outlines in the example here, an original resource from a research article by Gatbonton and Segalowitz was re-formatted into a workshop by Stephen Gaies (presumably with attribution to Gatbonton and Segalowitz). This in turn inspired Scott to engage in further resource gathering to inform his teaching practice while applying the five criteria for automaticity, and this further informed the section on fluency in his book, How to Teach Grammar (presumably with attribution to Gaies but now he realises he should’ve included attribution to Gatbonton and Segalowitz). In its latest iteration we find the same criteria for automaticity here in his blog post containing more ideas on how to apply this approach in language learning and teaching from both Scott and his blogpost readers. This is a great example of resource enhancement via re-use and re-mixing, something which the creative commons suite of licences http://creativecommons.org/ allow materials developers and users to do while maintaining full legal attribution rights for the original developer as well as extended rights to the re-mixer of that resource to create new resources.

Legally enabling others to openly re-mix your resources and publish new ones based on them was not possible back in 1988. Arguably, Gatbonton and Segalowitz’s paper with the original criteria on automaticity has stood the test of time because of its enhancement through sharing by Gaies and by the same criteria having been embedded in a further published iteration by Scott in How to Teach Grammar. Times have changed and there is a lot we can now do with digital capabilities for best practice in the use and re-use of resources with attribution still being at the core of the exchange between resource creation and consumption. Except that now with self-publishing and resource sharing platforms, including blogs, it’s a lot easier for all of us to be involved in the resource creation process and to receive attribution for our work in sharing. This coming week, March 5-10, is Open Education Week http://www.openeducationweek.org/ with many great resources on how to openly share your teaching and learning resources along with how to locate, re-use, re-mix and re-distribute with attribution those open educational resources created by others. Why not check it out and see how this can apply to ELT?

8 03 2012

Another interesting article that is much needed to be heard from the Japanese context. Though I am sure teachers in the front lines understand the ideas of making activities inherently repetitive, formulaic, focused, and psychologically authentic, there is still always the problem of making the task genuinely communicative in the EFL situation like that of Japan. Also, then teachers would start asking how much language should be automatic, because isn’t there a limit to how much can automatic. Furthermore, students would have to start building new sentences? Or are these from the ‘memorized procedures’. However, I did read somewhere that most of what an individual says from day to day is repetitive.

17 09 2016
3 Key Factors when Learning a Language | ELT Blog

[…] with a process in language learning known as Automation. As Thornbury (Online) points out in his blog post, automation is the ability to “draw on” memorised chunks of language without having […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: