N is for Nora

19 11 2017

anonymous_girl_facebookIn a talk that I do on case studies in second language acquisition, one of the stars of what I call ‘The SLA Hall of Fame’ is Nora. She was one of the five immigrant children that Lily Wong Fillmore observed as they interacted and played with their English-speaking peers at a school in the US in the mid-70s (Wong Fillmore 1979). It’s a study that has deservedly been called ‘seminal’, and I never get tired of re-visiting it – not least because of the way Nora herself comes alive in the transcripts of her emergent L2. (Nora was barely 6 at the time, so would be approaching 50 now – I wonder how she’s getting along?).

The background:  The researcher paired five Spanish-speaking children, newly arrived from Mexico, with five English-speaking ’buddies’ and regularly observed them at play in a well-equipped playroom over three months – the purpose of which was ‘to discover what social processes might be involved when children who need to learn a new language come into contact with those from whom they are to learn it – but with whom they cannot communicate easily’ (p. 205).

Of the five non-English speaking children (three boys and two girls), Nora was the youngest; the eldest was just over 7. None of the children were receiving any formal English instruction during the period of the study. Wong-Fillmore comments that, ‘by the end of 3 months of observations, it became quite clear that there would be enormous differences among the five children in what they would achieve during the study year’ (p. 207). These individual differences were the primary focus of her study. Nevertheless, the children all seemed to share a number of social and cognitive strategies, albeit with varying degrees of success.

These she summarises in the following table – with the proviso that it’s difficult to separate the social from the cognitive, the cognitive being the way that language was enlisted to achieve the social:

Wong Fillmore

What was notable about Wong Fillmore’s study was that it was one of the first SLA studies to foreground the key role played by formulaic language: ‘All five [children] quickly acquired repertoires of expressions which they knew how to use more or less appropriately, and put them to immediate and frequent use… This new material was learnable and memorable by virtue of being embedded in current, interest-holding activities over which the learners had already acquired some mastery, and from which they have already received social rewards’ (p. 211). Typical expressions included:

Lookit. Wait a minute. Lemme see. Gimme. You know what? Shaddup your mouth. Knock it off.

As Wray (2002, p. 170) comments, ‘formulaic sequences are the key to being perceived as belonging, and making yourself understood’.

More interesting still was the way that these memorized strings were, in many cases, reanalysed into their constituents, and hence ‘provided  the data on which the children were to perform their analytical activities in figuring out the structure of the language’ (p.212). This was achieved in part by cognitive strategy #3: Look for recurring parts in the formulas you know. The way that, for example, Nora’s memorized formula How do you do dese? provides the ‘raw material’ for subsequent productivity is summarized in this table (from Ortega 2009):

Ortega on Nora

And it is often by means of language play that control of these formulae is achieved, with gains in both fluency and analysis. Here is Nora’s use of what has subsequently been called ‘private speech’ in which she plays with the pattern by creating her own substitution drill:

She said me that it wa’ not too raining by she house.

She said it wa’ not too raining by she house.

She said she not raining by she house.

Wong Fillmore comments that ‘Nora was especially quick in figuring out which parts of the expressions in her repertory of formulas could be varied, and in analysing them.’

Nora’s ultimate success (she outstripped her peers by the year’s end) was due to other factors too, not least her lack of inhibition in speaking English coupled with (or driven by?) her strong desire to be integrated into the English-speaking group – to the point of even anglicizing the pronunciation of her own name:

(Beginning of the session. As usual, the girls are asked to record the names on the tape-recorder:)

Observer:            Wait – say your name first.

Nora:                     Uh –

Observer:            You forgot?

Nora:                     N – un –

Observer:            What’s your name?

Nora:                     Nora. (English pronunciation – [noɹə])

Observer:            Nora?

Nelia:                    Nora! (Spanish pronunciation – [noɾa])

Nora:                     Nora! (English)

Observer:            Oh!

Nelia:                    Nora. (Spanish)

Observer:            ’Scuse me, Nora. (English)

Nora:                     No – no, but my, my, but my mother tomorrow she’s gonna give me another name, Lora.

Observer:            What? Lora? Is that what your mother’s gonna do, Nora?

Nora:                     Um-hum. Lora.

Observer:            Okay, so you wannabe –

Nora:                     Lora, Lora, not Nora (Spanish). Teacher, teacher, but, but, you can call me, are, by now, Orla.

What fascinates me about this study is that, while notionally about individual differences and learning strategies, it anticipates a number of key developments in SLA theory, notably what Block (2003) calls the ‘social turn’, i.e. a re-orientation towards the view that language learning is not only a cognitive activity but is both socially embedded and socially motivated, a view that, in turn, finds support in sociocultural theories of SLA (e.g. Lantolf 2000). Associated with the social turn is the key role that identity formation plays (e.g. Norton 2013), well-evidenced in the conversation above. And the formative role of formulaic speech that is learned and deployed in contexts of use prefigures both the ‘lexical turn’ (e.g. Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992) and usage-based approaches to SLA (e.g.  Cadierno and Eskildsen 2015). Finally, the playground context is a text-book example of ‘situated learning’ and what Lave and Wenger (1991) call ‘legitimate peripheral participation.’

Given the fact, though, that the study was based on non-instructed learning, the key question (for me, at least) is: How can the kinds of social skills and cognitive strategies that Nora displayed be developed and nourished in a classroom context?


Block, D. (2003) The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (Eds) (2015) Usage-based perspectives on language learning. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lantolf, J.P.  (ed.) (2000) Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992) Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B. (2013) Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd edn). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding second language acquisition. London: Hodder.

Wong Fillmore, L. (1979) ‘Individual differences in second language acquisition,’ in Fillmore, C., Kempler, D., & Wang, W. (eds) Individual Differences in Language Ability and Language Behavior, New York: Academic Press. p. 203 – 228.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

P is for Personalization

12 02 2012

Childhood tragedy?

In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.

“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)

Inadvertently uncovering childhood tragedies is one of the risks of what has come to be known as personalization: “When you personalise language you use it to talk about your knowledge, experience and feelings” (An A-Z of ELT). Personalization has connotations of self-disclosure, even confession. But it hasn’t always been so.

Long ago...

When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.

This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.

This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’. I don’t recall ever having used these carefully contrived sentences as a conversation starter, and certainly never uncovered any childhood tragedies (that I was aware of). In fact, in Kernel Lessons this ‘transfer exercise’ was relegated to the Homework section of the book, thereby obviating any potentially awkward moments in the classroom.

But very soon personalization was re-invented, not as a form of language practice, but as the context and stimulus for language learning.  Within the humanist paradigm, where the ultimate aim of education is self-actualization, teachers were urged to ground their lessons in the lives, experiences, and feelings of their learners:

In foreign language teaching, we customarily begin with the lives of others, with whom students may not easily identify, and then expect students to transfer the material to their own lives.  However, transfer to the textbook is easier when the content starts with the student himself and then leads into the materials to be learned… Let the students first discover what they can generate on the subject from their own personal thoughts and feelings.  By drawing on their own experiences and reactions, the transfer to the textbook will be more relevant and more apparent.

(Moscowitz, 1978, p. 197)

Personalization, as we have seen, is not without its risks, and it’s arguable whether assuming the role of analyst – wittingly or unwittingly –  isn’t exceeding one’s brief as language instructor.  Yet there is a general acceptance in the profession that these risks are worth taking, and even teachers who don’t susbcribe one hundred percent to a humanist philosophy tend to think that personalization is ‘a good thing’. And, of course, basing the content of the lesson on the experiences, interests, desires and even fears of the people in the room also happens to be a core principle of the Dogme approach.

But, irrespective of whether we think it’s good for them, do learners actually like it? Do they like being quizzed about what they or their relatives were doing 10 days/months/years ago? Do they expect it? Do they see the value of it?

...and far away.

All the more reason, therefore, to ask whether or not the theoretical underpinnings for personalization are well grounded. Hence, I’ve been looking outside the (arguably too narrowly focused) domain of humanistic pedagogy for other sources of validation. Recently, research into the way second language learners are ‘socialized’ into communities of practice has shed new light on the notion of personalization, even if it’s not named as such. Bonny Norton (2000, p. 142), for instance, concluded her study of immigrant women in Canada thus:

Whether or not the identities of the learner are recognised as part of the formal language curriculum, the pedagogy that the teacher adopts in the classroom will nevertheless engage the identities of learners in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.  It is only by understanding the histories and lived experiences of language learners that the language teacher can create conditions that will facilitate social interaction both in the classroom and in the wider community, and help learners claim the right to speak.

From a related but more ecological perspective, Dwight Atkinson (2010) argues that language learning is a process of adapting to a social-cultural-linguistic environment, in which meaning is distributed throughout the system rather than being locked into individual minds, and that what learners pay attention to – what they notice – is that which is potentially important to their integration and survival:  “What really matters to a person – what is adaptive – is what gets attended” (p. 35). Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.

So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?


Atkinson, D. (2010) Sociocognition: what it can mean for second language acquisition. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollinghurst, A. (1994). The Folding Star. London: Chatto & Windus.

Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: gender, ethnicity and educational change.  London: Longman.

O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971). Kernel Lessons Intermediate. London: Longman.