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What is "Input Processing"?

Input Processing (IP) was proposed by Bill VanPatten, Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition from Michigan State University. Bill may be known to some of you from his podcast show Tea with BVP. He is one of those rare university academics who makes a specific effort to engage with practising teachers.

IP was first proposed in a 1993 article (published with T. Cadierno in the Modern Language Journal) entitled "Input processing and second language acquisition: A role for instruction." My summary of it is based on an article "Input Processing and Processing Instruction: Definitions and Issues" (2013) by Hossein Hashemnezhad.

IP is a little complicated to explain, but I'll do my best to summarise the key points before suggesting how it relates to other ways of looking at classroom language teaching. Is this actually any use to teachers? I apologise in advance for over-simplifying or misunderstanding. To paraphrase Dr Leonard McCoy from Star Trek "I'm just a teacher".

Firstly IP is about how learners perceive and process the language they hear or read (input) and turn it into what they actually understand (intake). If we knew more about this then we should be able to refine teaching to maximise the efficiency of this process.

Here are the main principles VanPatten summarises in a 2004 article. Take your time with these!

1. The Primacy of Meaning Principle. Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form.
1a  The Primacy of Content Words Principle. Learners process content words in the input before anything else (e.g. nouns and verbs rather than, say, determiners, partitives or inflections).
1b The Lexical Preference Principle. Learners rely on lexical items as opposed to grammatical form before they process redundant meaningful forms.
1c The Preference for Non-redundancy Principle. Learners are more likely to process non-redundant meaningful grammatical form before they process redundant meaningful grammatical forms. (For example, in English in the phrase two books, the s is redundant because we know from the word two that book is plural, whereas in the phrase I baked the ed is non-redundant because it carries important meaning, i.e. "pastness").
1d The Meaning-Before-Non-meaning Principle. Irrespective of redundancy learners are more likely to process meaningful grammatical forms.
1e The Availability of Resources Principle. The overall understanding of a whole sentence must not drain overall processing resources. (My note: there is a limit to what short term memory can process.)
1f  The Sentence Location Principle. Learners tend to process the items near the start of a sentence first, then those in final position, then those in medial position.

2. The First Noun Principle. Learners tend to process the first noun or pronoun as the subject or agent of an action.
2a  The Lexical Semantics Principle. Learners tend to rely on word meanings rather than word order to process meaning.
2b The Event Probabilities Principle. Learners may rely on event probabilities rather than word order to interpret sentences (i.e. what is the meaning likely to be).
2c The Contextual Constraint Principle. Learners may rely less on the First Noun Principle if preceding context constrains the possible interpretation of a clause or sentence.

Are you still here?

Now, to cut a long story short, could we adapt our presentation and practice of input to somehow match the way students tend to process the input? In this way we might render the input more comprehensible and easy to process. As Wong and VanPatten (2003) put it, maybe we can "manipulate input in particular ways to push learners to process it better". (Don't forget that VanPatten goes along with Krashen in hypothesising that acquisition really only happens as a consequence of receiving comprehensible input. However, as I understand it, VanPatten disagrees with Krashen by claiming classroom instruction can accelerate the process through IP.)

Structured Input (SI)

So VanPatten believes that by structuring (patterning) the input you can increase the rate of acquisition. He suggests the following;

1.  Teach only one thing at a time. Don't overburden students until you are sure they have worked out form-meaning relationships.

2.  Keep meaning in focus. Students must understand to perform an activity.

3.  Learners must do something with the input. Not just repeat but "internally process", e.g. students might have to say they agree or disagree rather than just repeat.

4. Use input. Use oral and written input.

5.  Move from sentences to context. Work at sentence level, but move to longer utterances and texts.

6. Keep the processing strategies in mind.  VanPatten distinguishes between Referential and Affective activities. The former involve producing right or wrong answers, the latter invite opinions, beliefs and other affective responses which are more deeply engaging.

Remarks

When I read about the IP model I am struck by how it seems to be a way of bringing together the naturalistic (à la Krashen) view of language learning and teaching and structural/grammatical (focus on form(s)) view held by most teachers.

In examples of lessons I have read following the VanPatten IP model, e.g. here, he seems to advocate some quite mainstream communicative and oral-situational activities where there is an attempt to combine interesting meanings with highly patterned input. I am also reminded of what my friend Gianfranco Conti talks about with regard to patterned input, e.g. here. I also can't help thinking of the "noticing hypothesis" (Richard Schmidt, 1990) where it is claimed that drawing attention to a form is necessary for its acquisition. I suppose VanPatten might argue that we still too often neglect the meaning side of the equation in our desire to work though a grammatical (focus on forms) syllabus.

What do I draw form this as a (former) teacher? 

  • Give lots of patterned input where target vocabulary and structures are repeated.
  • Make tasks as interesting and meaningful as possible. 
  • Get students to notice and practise grammatical forms, but focus on the most important ones which affect meaning.
  • Work both at sentence and paragraph level.
  • Try to introduce only one new structure at a time to avoid cognitive overload.
  • Encourage students in your lesson plans to engage on a personal level with the input.
  • Some complex sounding hypotheses lead to fairly obvious conclusions!

Whether we need to go further by finely tuning input to closely resemble the processing principles described above (e.g. by rearranging the order of words in sentences), I'm not so sure.

References

Hashemnezhad, H.  (2013). "Input Processing and Processing Instruction: Definitions and Issues." International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature. Vol 2, No. 1 (http://www.journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/IJALEL/article/view/820)
 
Schmidt,R.W (1990). "The role of consciousness in second language learning." Applied Linguistics 11, 129–58.  

VanPatten, B. (2004). Several reflections on why there is good reason to continue researching the effects of processing instruction. In B. VanPatten, (Ed.), Processing instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary (325-335). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
 
VanPatten, B. & Cadierno, T. (1993). "Input processing and second language acquisition: A role for instruction. Modern Language Journal," 77, 45-57. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.1993.tb01944.x

Wong, W. & VanPatten, B. (2003). The evidence is IN: Drills are out. Foreign Language Annals, 36(3), 403-423. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1944-9720.2003.tb02123.x




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