I’ve been reading and tweeting about the recently published book by Frank Boers called Evaluating Second Language Vocabulary and Grammar Instruction: a Synthesis of the Research on Teaching Words, Phrases and Patterns (published by Routledge).. I can recommend the book strongly to anyone interested in classroom second language acquisition research. It’s very clearly written, thorough and nuanced, notably in the way it evaluates research and draws tentative conclusions for the classroom.
In the final section of the book, Boers draws together the findings of research into incidental (by which he doesn’t mean unconscious, but more like picking up new language when the focus is on content or meaning), and language-focused learning and suggests one possible way to organise teaching if the aim is to introduce new items. It’s important to emphasise that point - this is when the precise aim is to develop skill with particular words, phrases or patterns.This is by no means meant to be prescriptive. As Boers puts it:
“The next question is how to create an ensemble of language-focused and content-focused activities to help language students (a) develop initial knowledge of a certain segment of vocabulary or of a certain grammar pattern, (b) retain this knowledge, and (c) use it smoothly for communicative purposes.”
He argues that because there are so many variables involved in classrooms, it’s “probably wise to adopt an eclectic approach”. But with that in mind, here is the sequence he describes which is evidenced by research:
1. Draw learners’ attention to a target words/phrases/pattern.
2. Explain the meaning or function of the items/pattern with the aid of examples, or, if thought possible without a high risk of confusion, ask the learners to work them out themselves with the aid of examples, and then confirm.
3. Engage learners in content-oriented activities with input texts that further illustrate the use and meaning of the items/pattern.
4. Possibly elaborate briefly about a property of the item that may make it easier to remember.
5. Provide opportunities for the students to retrieve the items/pattern from memory. This can be done in diverse ways. For example, a modified version of the input texts from step 3 could be used to cue recall of missing items (e.g. gap-fill). In the case of certain grammar features, it could be done through the kind of interpretation practice proposed in Processing Instruction (exercises which force students to make form-meaning links with the grammar, for example a verb ending). Recall of meaning can be prioritised if the aim is to encourage receptive knowledge; recall of form if the aim is to foster productive knowledge.
6. Engage students in communicative tasks likely to elicit the target items/pattern. Ensure opportunities for improvement (e.g., feedback) between the tasks or task repetitions. Although there are more language-focused steps in this ensemble (steps 1, 2, 4 and 5), the content-focused activities (steps 3 and 6) would take up more time, thus creating a balance overall between the 2 broad approaches.
In this part of the book Boers references Nation’s (2007) ‘four strands’ approach to curriculum design, which includes focus on finding a balance between four aspects: meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, a focus on the form of the language and fluency development. You can see that Boers’ own description of a typical sequence marries well with the Nation approach. As Boers also mentions, this sort of approach would hardly seem controversial to most teachers.