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.