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.

Reference

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





C is for Communicative

15 08 2010

A communicative activity- Teaching Practice at the New School this summer

The term communicative is applied fairly loosely.  Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal pairs activity which involves pairs pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled  ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term communicative approach has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups.

But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. In An A-Z of ELT I list the features of a communicative activity as being the following:

  • purposefulness: speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake;
  • reciprocity: to achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak;
  • negotiation: following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other;
  • synchronicity: the exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time;
  • unpredictability: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable;
  • heterogeneity: participants can use any communicative means at their disposal; in other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task (of the type that the students are doing in the picture above) where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and DrawSpot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism –  that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such life-like language exchanges.  Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning required in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency.

None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive: for a start, it’s debatable whether info-gap activities truly replicate real-life language use – when did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance?  And the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from “real-life”.  Finally, isn’t there a danger that – if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely – the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? (See the post on P for Push, for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, there also seems to be a good case for arguing that only life-like language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that  the communication matters: that it is both contingent – i.e. it connects to the real-world in some way – and engaging: that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I have sometimes referred to as big-C Communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterised by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-C communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teacher’s manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems (pp 8-9).

So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C Communication, I would add the following to my list:

  • contingency: the speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc)  in which they are uttered;
  • investment: the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!

Reference:

Legutke, M. and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Longman.