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.

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.

F is for Fluency

17 12 2009

Jeremy Harmer recently asked – on Twitter – for opinions as to why some learners achieve high degrees of fluency, while others do not. I wanted to reply that any answer to that question depends on how you define fluency – and then I would go on to attempt to define it. But the 140-character restriction of Twitter proved too much, so I thought I’d blog it instead.

As I found when I tried to define it in the A-Z, fluency is one of those elusive, fuzzy, even contested, terms that means different things to different people. In lay terms, a “fluent speaker of French” is probably someone whose French is judged as accurate, easy on the ear, and idiomatic. The term, however, was co-opted by methodologists (especially those aligned to the communicative approach) to describe the purpose of classroom activities whose focus is on communicating meaning, rather than on the practice of specific (typically grammatical) forms. Thus, Brumfit (1984) said that “the distinction between accuracy and fluency is essentially a methodological distinction, rather than one in psychology or linguistics”. And added, “fluency…is to be regarded as natural language use, whether or not it results in native-speaker-like language comprehension or production”. The problem with this definition, though, is that it is very difficult to operationalise, especially from the point of view of testing. What exactly is “natural language use”, how do you contrive it in the classroom, and how do you assess it (especially if you are discounting native-speaker-like models as your benchmark)? As a term, fluency becomes difficult to disentangle from related concepts, such as intelligibility, coherence, communicative effectiveness, and so on.   

To counter this fuzziness, various researchers, working in a cognitive tradition, attempted to characterise it in measurable terms. Thus, Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005), following Skehan (1998), define fluency as “the production of language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.”  That is to say, it is a ‘temporal phenomenon’. Well and good. This is something we can measure.

Confusingly, though, they go on to say that “fluency occurs when learners prioritize meaning over form in order to get a task done”. This to me seems patently false: getting a task done is no guarantee that there is no “undue pausing or hesitation”. On the contrary, the effort involved in performing a task may actually increase the degree of dysfluency. And nor is attention to meaning a pre-condition for pause-free production. Some of our most fluent productions, as proficient speakers, are texts that we have committed to memory (tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, prayers, oaths of allegiance, etc) that we can trot out without ANY attention to meaning.

In fact, it may be that fluency is indeed a function of memory, and that the capacity to produce pause-free speech in real time is contingent on having a memorised bank of formulaic language “chunks” – a view that was first put forward as long ago as 1983 by Pawley and Syder in their seminal paper, ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. Well, I used to say that it was P & S who ‘first put forward’ this view. And then I discoverd more recently that the great Harold Palmer, as even longer ago as 1925, identified ‘the fundamental guiding principle for the student of conversation’ as being “Memorize perfectly the largest number of common and useful word-groups!

If this is in fact the case, as teachers interested in developing fluency, we might need to:

1. clarify the concept of  what a ‘word group’ is;
2. select those word groups that are both common and useful;
3. set a target that represents the largest practicable number;
4. decide what the criteria for perfect memorization might be;
5. devise and teach strategies that promote memorization of word groups;
6. devise activities what provide opportunities for learners to activate what they have memorized, without undue pausing or hesitation, in ways that replicate real language use.

Is this a tall order?