For this post, I am drawing on a section from the excellent book by Rod Ellis and Natsuko Shintani called Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research (Routledge, 2014).
Skill acquisition is one of several competing theories of how we learn new languages. It’s a theory based on the idea that skilled behaviour in any area can become routinised and even automatic under certain conditions through repeated pairing of stimuli and responses. When put like that, it looks a bit like the behaviourist view of stimulus-response learning which went out of fashion from the late 1950s.
Skill acquisition draws on John Anderson’s ACT theory, which he called a cognitivist stimulus-response theory. ACT stands for Adaptive Control of Thought. ACT theory distinguishes declarative knowledge (knowledge of facts and concepts, such as the fact that adjectives agree) from procedural knowledge (knowing how to do things in certain situations, such as understand and speak a language).
The theory claims that declarative knowledge can become procedural through storing “condition-action” memories in long-term memory. Declarative knowledge can become proceduralised, therefore, through practice. So just as we deliberately learn the actions needed to drive a car, through practice, driving becomes automatic - something we do without thinking.
In language learning terms, this means that in some conditions knowledge “that” can become knowledge “how”. For example, we can learn the rules of how to form a verb tense, then with practice these rules can become internalised so that we can produce correct utterances without thinking about the form of the language.
The researcher Robert DeKeyser has argued that through the so-called power law of practice we can proceduralise declarative knowledge of language over time. But he is clear that this only works in some conditions, with some structures and with some learners - typically adult learners. The theory also claims that the kind of knowledge which can be automatised is very specific and does not transfer to other areas. For example, if you practise speaking you get better at speaking; if you practise listening you get better at listening. There are, therefore, different knowledge stores related to different skills.
DeKeyser defined “practice” as “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language” (DeKeyser, 2007, p.1).
Practice can include drills, but DeKeyser argues that meaningful drills which the expression of real feelings and thoughts are better than mechanical drills aimed merely at practising forms. He says that the transfer of declarative to procedural knowledge is likely to occur when the practice resembles natural communicative activity. This is tied in with the theory that memories are best retrieved when the conditions under which they were created can be replicated (Transfer-Appropriate Processing).
To recap, this theory claims that the effects of teaching are skill-specific. So input-based instruction develops receptive skills, and output practice develops production skills. To support this claim, experiments have been carried out (for example with invented languages) to see if automatisation can take place and if this is skill-specific. In these studies, acquisition of production or comprehension skills was less apparent if only the opposite skill was practised.
The theory has been criticised by Ellis (2009) for a couple of reasons. It doesn’t take account of learners’ “in-built syllabus” - the fact that we tend to acquire grammatical structures in a certain, rather fixed order. And secondly, the fact that we seem to acquire lots of knowledge and skill incidentally, without passing through a declarative knowledge stage.
What can language teachers take from this?
There is evidence that, as we feel intuitively and from experience, that “practice makes perfect”. You can teach a rule and practise it to the point where comprehension and production become automatic. With some more able pupils we see this quite regularly. It does seem, to some extent, that practising speaking makes for better speakers and practising listening makes for better listeners. But it’s really not that simple. The power of implicit, unconscious learning and the fact that some students are clearly more ready than others to acquire new structures means that skill acquisition is only one part of the equation.
Indeed, some would argue that skill acquisition plays a minor role and that it’s largely through receiving input we understand that we become more proficient speakers in the end. In other words, receptive input benefits output far more than just practising speaking. As a teacher, after working with pupils over seven years from beginner to B1 level, my hunch was that it was the huge amount of input which ultimately produced the gains in oral and written production, but that the controlled practice and declarative knowledge played a significant role. Where you only have a limited time (say three years with mixed ability groups), the amount of input is not enough to produce proficient speakers so goals need to be limited and may depend relatively more on the acquisition of a narrow range of skills.
We don’t know the truth about this, but it would be surprising if both perspectives did not have value. In school settings, where time is limited, teachers may well be right in their assumption that skill acquisition has a role to play, even if results are often disappointing. Would results be any better if no attempt were made to make declarative knowledge procedural? Some say the result of that would be a lot of confusion in students’ minds.
A sort of middle way is the lexicogrammatical approach where the focus is on meaningful chunks, lots of receptive input, along with grammar explanation. Input features strongly, as does output practice (so-called "pushed output” or "forced output"). Through spaced input and practice some language will stick. Skill acquisition is combined with implicit learning. How much sticks will depend a lot on the motivation and aptitude of the learner.
DeKyser, R. (2007) Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. New York: CUP.
Ellis, R. (2009). Corrective Feedback and Teacher Development. L2 Journal 1 (1).
Ellis, R. and Shintani, N. (2014). Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. London: Routledge.