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How useful is learning verb conjugations?

I guess most of you out there have at some point got your students to study verb tables, chant or sing verb paradigms, or played games to practise endings - Battleships and the interactive site Conjugemos spring to mind. Many of us have also found ourselves at some point bemoaning students' lack of skill with verb inflections and wondered what we can do improve the situation.

Most of you probably assume that memorising verb tables will lead to improvements in spoken and written accuracy and fluency. Is this actually the case?

The case for 

Common sense might suggest that if you practise the small bits of a second language you should be able to build them up like lego into larger bits. By practising the micro skills, the component parts, you become better at the main game - think of the musician practising scales or the footballer doing shooting practice. These activities lead to improved performance. This is the basis of skill acquisition theory and it has its proponents in academic research into second language learning, even though others argue there is hardly any evidence that's how we learn a language. What is the evidence?

If you delve into the academic research about whether explicit, conscious learning of grammar leads to long term acquisition ("procedural" knowledge, the ability to use the language spontaneously) you find there is scant evidence for the claim. However, a well-known meta-study by John Norris and Lourdes Ortega (2000) looked at 49 pieces of experimental or quasi-experimental research into the effectiveness of explicit teaching of grammar and concluded:

"... data indicated that focused L2 instruction results in large target-oriented gains, that explicit types of instruction are more effective than implicit types, and that Focus on Form and Focus on Forms interventions result in equivalent and large effects." (from the abstract)

By Focus on Form they mean attention to grammatical features during teaching focused mainly on meaning and by Focus of Forms (with the "s") they meant teaching where the grammatical features were the main focus of instruction (a traditional grammar-based syllabus which we are familiar with). Put another way, Focus on Form is like teaching some grammar incidentally as and when it seems useful, whereas Focus on Forms is where the syllabus is based on a planned sequence of grammatical structures.) Learning of verb paradigms is more likely to occur with a Focus on Forms context.

It's worth adding that the gains for explicit grammar teaching, as measured by Norris and Ortega,  were found to be both short term and longer term. (A common criticism of explicit teaching of grammar is that it may seem to produce short term benefits, but the this knowledge does not become part of a learner's "acquired" language (i.e. language which can be used spontaneously). I'm sure you have seen this phenomenon yourself with classes.

But...

the Norris and Ortega study has come in for criticism. There were some serious caveats, e.g.

1. They couldn't be sure what was going on when the instruction was taking place in the studies they examined. What exactly was going on when Focus on Form(s) was occurring? What was the teacher actually doing?
2. The success of learning was measured 90% by grammar tests of individual items (e.g. gap-filling and multi-choice), not through testing general fluency, i.e. the ability to use the language in real time. Isn't the latter what we should most be interested in? In other words the evidence being used was largely of explicit knowledge, not necessarily procedural knowledge.

Some have argued that these points hugely devalue the study to the point where it is impossible to argue that explicit teaching of grammar (e.g. learning verbs by rote) can be proved to lead to fluency.

An alternative view...

is that proficiency develops either largely or wholly from exposure to meaningful language input, that familiar "comprehensible input" most associated with the writer Stephen Krashen, who still exerts a major influence on the teaching profession, notably in the USA. Put simply, he argues that we acquire language by understanding messages, just as a young child does. He famously argued that explicit attention to grammatical form only serves to allow speakers to monitor and edit their performance as they speak (the Monitor Hypothesis).

Although most writers don't go as far as Krashen these days, the most common view in the literature is that the large proportion of learning occurs unconsciously or "implicitly". (Think of how fast students progress when in an immersion situation where there is no explicit teaching of forms.) Some also argue that Focus on Form (without the "s") can still play a useful role in accelerating learning of some grammatical features, notably ones which are easy to explain.

And yet...

Most teachers and trainees I meet believe that skill acquisition, e.g. learning verbs, is useful and will help lead to fluency. My own feeling, for what it's worth, is that learning verbs by rote is of marginal use in developing long term acquisition, but may serve some useful purposes:

1. As Krashen suggests, having given very explicit attention to verb endings may allow you to monitor your accuracy while speaking and writing.
2. Learning verbs by heart may give many pupils a sense of mastery and achievement in a subject where short term gains are sometimes hard to pin down. If a teacher believes strongly in verb learning and can make it engaging (e.g. through melodies like the Mission Impossible theme to the present tense paradigms of certain verbs) this may engender motivation in itself which could help with long term progress.We know that the large majority of MFL pupils will not achieve great proficiency so is there a case of setting more limited goals which nevertheless give a sense of achievement?
3. Perhaps skill acquisition works but we haven't YET found the research evidence. (It's really hard to research since we cannot be sure what is happening in the brain when students are exposed to meaningful input and explicit instruction. Is it the instruction that's producing the progress or just the meaningful input? As some have said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
4. Where the teacher has limited fluency or ability to exploit effective resources it may seem useful to focus on grammar and translation (which was the case for many years before non-native speakers had the opportunity to live abroad for extended periods). A teacher who is out of his or her depth linguistically or who is doing supply may choose to fall back on easily manageable tasks such as verb learning and practice.

So...

My own humble view would be that you shouldn't imagine for a moment that knowing verbs by heart will of itself lead directly or even indirectly to acquisition. However, the feeling of many teachers (and pupils, I suspect) that practice of forms can lead to acquisition should not be ignored as evidence, even if it is not (yet) scientific. Is learning a second language the same as learning a first? Almost certainly not, though they have much in common.
 

Are verb learning and other very structured grammatical activities a short cut to acquisition? Can you by-pass the natural route of language acquisition? The balance of research opinion would say it is very doubtful. Indeed, much research demonstrates that teachers cannot even "teach" grammar at all - it develops along a natural route impervious to explicit instruction. Some argue, for example, that our traditional PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production) model is flawed because of this fact - see this blog post by Geoff Jordan for an interesting discussion about the unteachability of grammar. Geoff Jordan writes:

"No study conducted in the last 20 years has come up with evidence to challenge the established claim that explicit focus on forms such as PPP can do nothing to alter the route of interlanguage development. As Ortega (2009), in her summary of SLA findings states:

Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.

Teaching is constrained by the learners’ own powerful cognitive contribution, and to assume that learners will learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it using a PPP paradigm is false."

So is it worth spending lots of time on learning and chanting verbs? Almost certainly not. Within the limited time you get in the classroom there are always choices to be made; you have to weigh up the "surrender value" of every task. If I had to choose between verb learning and working with meaningful, teacher-led communicative activities, audio and written texts I would go for the latter if I had long term acquisition on mind..


References

John M. Norris and Lourdes Ortega’s (2000) article entitled "Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-Analysis".
Language Learning, 50, 417-528.

Lourdes  Ortega (2009) “Sequences and processes in language learning”. In Long and Doughty (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Wiley.

 University of Texas Foreign Language Teaching Methods https://coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/grammar/02/

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