The Grammar Story: Investigating the Staged Acquisition of L2 Grammar Through Processability Theory

The Grammar Story: Investigating the Staged Acquisition of L2 Grammar Through Processability Theory

By: Robert H. Taferner

When you read an engaging story, it grabs hold of you and transforms your reality. In that transformation, a teachable moment arises that helps us puzzle through to our next stage of awareness. The story of how I came to understand grammar acquisition by second language (L2) learners is such a journey.

Acquiring an L2 is not an easy feat. Even with a relentless pursuit of the clear expression of our thoughts in another language, grammar mistakes and errors are our constant companions. A grammar mistake refers to missteps or other forms of omissions that someone makes due to a lack of attention. On the other hand, a grammar error shows that the learner requires further instruction to understand and utilize the item correctly. In the classroom, it is common practice for teachers to correct both mistakes and errors as a default reaction to a perceived learning need. However, the efficacy of correcting learners’ errors continues to be a subject of an ongoing debate, with some participants suggesting that errors should not be corrected. Like many teachers, I too have experimented with how best to address my students’ learning needs, especially when grammar errors seemed to require attention and corrective feedback. It is during this time that my grammar story began.

My ongoing experimentation with grammar instruction in my writing classes led me to utilize narratives to help students improve their writing fluency. A particularly useful narrative was Frog, where are you? otherwise known as The Frog Story. This story—with its seemingly simple illustrations used to narrate the adventures of a frog that escaped captivity and was pursued by a young boy and his dog—has been used widely to investigate language development in applied linguistics. A typical way to utilize this narrative would have students look at a number of the pictures, without words, and write the story within a fixed period of time. I personally selected 10 pictures, added a vocabulary list for each picture, and gave students 30 minutes to complete their story. Using this story in the classroom as an aid to improving grammar helped me focus on the narrative structure of the story as a relatively simple writing genre that L2 learners could quickly understand. With the lighter cognitive load offered by stories, students could be more attentive to general grammatical structures such as: tenses, morphological features, pronouns, articles, and prepositions, allowing for higher accuracy and fluency in their writing. My objective was to create an environment in which students’ mistakes (or carelessness) and errors (indicating emergent acquisition) could be kept to a minimum, making corrective feedback more effective, as a limited number of grammatical forms was likely to appear in their writing. After many attempts at this writing task design and corrective feedback strategy, my students’ general writing ability seemed to improve. However, it became clear that my persistent correction of articles and prepositions only made a marginal difference to students’ future writing proficiency and that further investigation into enhancing their productive grammar abilities was necessary.

One explanation of why the correction of errors has limited efficacy is given by Processability Theory (PT). (See also Keßler, 2008). This theory divides learning into five (or six) stages for L2 learners’ interlanguage development, proposing that some grammar forms must be learned before others can be. Generally, when a learner is at one particular stage, errors are likely if attempts at grammatical constructions beyond their stage of explicit or implicit knowledge are made. These developmental stages are grounded in cognitive and psycholinguistic theories, with the intricate details of each stage currently undergoing theoretical and methodological verification.

It was through Processability Theory that the effects of teaching grammar and of error correction became clearer to me, when I viewed my students’ learning as a staged developmental process. (See Mielke, 2019). My students’ inability to use the grammar that I taught now had a viable explanation. It became apparent that a number of underlying variables (e.g., age of acquisition, aptitude, complexity, motivation, proficiency) either promoted or inhibited acquisition.

As a complement to Processability Theory, Rapid Profile was created as a tool to help diagnose interlanguage development and identify a learner’s PT developmental stage. Rapid Profile provides an opportunity of informing both the teacher and learner about what grammatical features to focus on, in order to enhance acquisition as learners move through the stages.

The next step in my journey to understanding my students’ grammar acquisition was to create my own version of Rapid Profile that I could use in the classroom. The first three parts of my Rapid Profile for the Classroom elicited responses to items from PT development stages 1 to 4, including word access, lexical morphemes (e.g., plural form (-s) and past tense (-ed)), and information exchange within the noun phrase (NP, e.g., The boy fell from the tree.) and verb phrase (VP, e.g., The boy was looking for the frog.). Parts I and II utilized illustrations depicting daily routines. Part III required students to describe and ask questions about a sequence of pictures from The Frog Story.

Part I. Describe each picture.

Part II. Describe each Daily Routine picture (1 [Now] & 2 [The next day]).

Part III. Write a question for each Frog Story picture.

Part IV. Write a sentence for each Frog Story 2 picture.

For Part IV, I extended The Frog Story to make Frog Story 2 (see figures 1 to 6). This allowed for the focused investigation of high frequency prepositional phrases and double object constructions, i.e., PT Stages 3, 5, and 6. See the figures for example sentences.

Figure 1. Father is telling The Frog Story to his children

Figure 3. The baby frog is telling The Frog Story to the children

Figure 5. The children are sending the letter to the frog’s parents

Figure 2. Father buying a baby frog for his children

Figure 4. The children are writing a letter to the frog’s parents

Figure 6. The frog is returning home to his parents

As is to be expected, my students’ language production did not closely follow all of the sub-categories of each stage predicted by the PT developmental orders. Many students attempted to make correct phrasal verb constructions, which appear in Stage 3, and to use of the double object, from Stage 6. However, many errors in Stage 1, 2, and other Stage 3 forms were evident. It was clear that the first language (L1) had a strong impact on L2 production, in the case of Japanese learners of English, especially on articles, plural nouns, irregular verbs, tense and aspect, and prepositions. On the other hand, grammatical features from higher stages of development emerged even when lower level features were not completely acquired. To see clear evidence of students’ range of abilities across these developmental stages was a real eye-opener for me, as the instrument revealed each student’s path through a field of grammar, with peaks and valleys of achievement. It also showed that stages of development were mostly L1 dependent, indicating the need for crosslinguistic investigations for the mapping of L1-specific developmental trajectories.

It was with the study of high frequency prepositions deviating from their core prototypical meanings that I realized that explicit feedback and instruction were not always a reliable method for the long-term acquisition of most prepositions for L2 learners, as shown in my article, “Effects of Explicit Instruction on High Frequency Single-Word Prepositions” (Taferner, 2017). A deeper understanding of the conceptual complexity of each preposition was needed.

From cognitive linguistics, the study of image schema theories alerted me of the way the mind conceptualizes space into figure (e.g., boy) and ground features (e.g., bicycle), and that these features may or may not be shared between languages. These potential differences in L1 and L2 conceptualizations led me to the Crosslinguistic Image Schema Differential (CISD) Hypothesis. The CISD Hypothesis compares the L1 and L2 and then predicts whether or not a particular scene would be difficult for the L2 learner to describe.

Three examples of this phenomenon can be seen in Figures 7, 8, and 9, where vehicles are used for transportation. Figure 7 shows “The man is on a train to Osaka,” where a person would be able to walk around in the vehicle, which is supported by the various characteristics of vehicles.

Figure 7. The man is on a train to Osaka


Figure 9. The man is in the car going to Osaka

Figure 8. Jackie is in a small boat

Jackie is on/in a small boat to Kobe. This case is complicated, as it evokes competing interests of the categorization of vehicle and the possibility of walking around on it, and partial enclosure in a container. If we emphasize travel to a destination, on a boat is the likely choice. On the other hand, if the small boat were stationary, without the emphasis on transportation, the boat would be viewed as a container, with in a boat as the likely selection. Here, the mind instantaneously makes an unconscious determination about the situation. Is this for transportation or should I worry about the scale of the vehicle? However, the L2 mind may get confused in deciding how best to frame the situation (i.e., is Jackie using the boat for transportation to a destination? Can she stand up and walk around on the boat?), then hesitantly verbalize a description of the scene.

In Figure 9, the man is in the car going to Osaka. In this case, due to the size of the vehicle and the inability to walk around, in is used rather than on. In Japanese, on the other hand, the scale of the vehicle has no influence on the choice of particle (naka <in> or ue <on>) used in constructing the scene. Differences like these need further investigation so as to improve our instructions to students, especially when it comes to high frequency usages.

From a brain science perspective, exciting developments are on the horizon for cognitive psycholinguistic research. With the introduction of non-invasive functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) for the measurement of language development, we can see when a learner is actively engaging in learning and acquiring specific grammatical patterns. (See Taura, 2018.) With our increasing awareness, from PT and fNIRS results, of how learners process grammar, our improved understanding of the effects of explicit grammar instruction will likely lead to more informed and successful approaches to classroom pedagogy. (See Chai et al., 2016).

This grammar story has shown a way forward for teachers and learners alike. The story began with the initial problem of dealing with learners’ errors, then understanding language development through PT, and finally determining when learners are actively engaged in language learning, with fNIRS. We now have the tools to take on learning the grammars of the world, boldly, and with assurance. With perseverance, utilizing this exploratory journey of grammar acquisition may play a significant role in the transformation of your L2 mind.

Robert Taferner is an Associate Professor at Hiroshima University, Japan. His research interests include Psycholinguistics, Cognitive Linguistics, and the acquisition of prepositions/adpositions through the development of the Crosslinguistic Image Schema Differential (CISD) Hypothesis.

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