Monday, April 17, 2023

The Theory of Ordered Development

Over the past years, I have served as a coach at a number of CI/ADI training conferences and online courses. I know that for the most part, things will go fine with participants as they begin learning about CI. Many participants will be "This is great - I am with you this! Keep preaching!" But I also know that there will be certain topics which will "challenge" many teachers' views on language learning. This is one of them: the Theory of Ordered Development (also known as the Order of Acquisition theory or the Natural Order Theory). 

Essentially, this theory states that learners acquire language structures in a particular order (NOTE - when I use the term acquire, without oversimplifying the language process, I use it to mean that students are independently able to wield that particular language structure in their output, because they have internalized it without necessarily knowing the whys behind that structure). In his book "While We're on the Topic," Bill Van Patten gives an example of how these stages appear in students learning Spanish:

For the longest time, I could not understand why my Latin students would constantly leave out the verb and incorrectly write what I considered something very basic - something which I had felt that they had received tons of input, e.g., instead of canis est laetus, they would write canis laetus, i.e., they were leaving out the verb est (which to me seemed so incredibly basic, since est = is). Now I understand why! And what my students were demonstrating in this "error" was just purely confirming the theory of ordered development.

Long (1997) states that “the idea that what you teach is what [students] learn, and when you teach [x grammar topic] is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong."

In Lightbown (1984), "French-speaking students’ English output did not 'match' the input they were given.  Students “do not simply learn linguistic elements as they are taught– adding them one after another in neat progression.  Rather, the students process the input in ways which are more 'acquisition-like' and not often consistent with what the teacher intends for them to 'learn'.”

Van Patten ends by stating that no amount of explicit grammar instruction can alter this order of acquisition. 

As I stated earlier, the theory of ordered development always brings up a number of comments, such as "So what is my job as a teacher then if I do not team explicit grammar?" and "This lesson makes me feel like I am obsolete if I am not teaching grammar!" While I completely understand these sentiments, there are some foundational CI/ADI basics which need to be understood:

  • Language learning is not linear in nature. In other words, since language acquisition is unlike any other subject area, just because we introduce a grammar concept on Monday does not mean at all that students will have acquired and mastered it by Friday (unlike what textbooks want us to believe). 
  • Instead, language learning is more piecemeal in nature. Van Patten states, "Neither first nor second language learners get a 'particular thing' all at once. For example, learners of both first and second languages don't first learn present tense, then past tense, then future tense. Instead, they start with no tense marking, get part of what it means to mark present tense while they are learning to mark past tense, which in turn they only get partially."
  • Accuracy is the last component of language acquisition and will always be a process in progress. Think of how long you have been speaking your L1 - are you always 100% accurate grammatically when you speak or write?
Now please do not feel frustrated by this theory. If anything, it will help you manage your expectations about what you see with student output of language. Some tips:
  • You can still teach explicit grammar - it is just will not look like how you have done it before! Use grammar timeouts and pop-up grammar. Explain the grammar, but do not spend too much time on it - 10-15 seconds. In other words, do not make the grammar timeout the focus of the lesson. However, do it often to get in "repetitions" of those quick grammar explanations. 
  • Continue to give lots of level-appropriate understandable input. If language acquisition is subconscious in nature, then when we bathe students' minds with comprehensible messages, then output will be the overflow.
  • Shelter vocabulary, not grammar.  
  • Remember that our students most likely will be in Intermediate stage of "outputting" language after 4 years. Their output will be MESSY and probably strewn with grammatical errors. However, at this level, the question to ask yourself as outlined by ACTFL is this: are these students' messages understandable to a sympathetic listener/receiver, one who is accustomed to interacting with non-native L2 speakers?

One last comment: Why not teach a syllabus based completely on the theory of ordered development? While that would be an exhaustive syllabus, again, the mindset behind that question is that language learning is linear and that explicit grammar is the way to go. We must remember that learners are able comprehend a lot more language structures than they can actually output and produce on their own. As a result, we must not put the "cart before the horse," i.e., do not think that just because students have been exposed to a structure and are able to comprehend it when reading or listening that it also equates to their acquisition of that structure and being able to wield it properly and independently.

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