Irregular before regular – maximizing explicit grammar instruction by inverting traditional instructional sequences

images (7)

In most coursebooks and schemes of work adopted by UK MFL education providers, the exceptions to a given grammar structure are usually taught after the dominant rule governing that structure has been imparted. In the present post I argue that in many cases inverting the teaching sequence may have a more beneficial impact on acquisition. The rationale for this approach is rooted in the way the brain forms and revise the L2 Interlanguage system.

When a learner is taught a grammar rule, the brain creates a cognitive ‘structure’ that s/he will consolidate through much receptive exposure and production. As already discussed in my post on how L2 grammar ‘rules’ are acquired, when a grammar structure is in the process of being automatised, the brain tends to be extremely circumspect in accepting as ‘correct’ – and consequently ‘learnable’ – any use of that structure which does not match the declarative knowledge (or mental rule representation) stored in Long-Term Memory which refers to it. This is particularly true of the final stage in L2 grammar structure acquisition – Andersons’s (2000) Strengthening process. During this stage, the brain needs to be particularly impervious to any alteration to the rule system referring to that structure in order for that system to be stable and avoid encoding ambiguity. For any successful cognitive restructuring of an existing grammar rule to occur two conditions must be met:

  • The grammar rule one wants to restructure must be fully acquired for any exception to it to be incorporated; only then will the brain be more likely to ‘see’ the exception to that rule as a separate subsystem which does not pose any ‘threats’ to the dominant rule system;
  • The exception to the rule must be processed by the brain numerous times in salient and meaningful contexts; this entails that exceptions to a given rule which do not occur frequently in the language processed in classroom or out-of-the-classroom L2-based activities are less likely to be internalized as they will be ‘masked’ so to speak by the dominant rule.

Let us look at an example: teaching the Passé Composé in French. Coursebooks normally begin with the verbs forming this tense with ‘Avoir’ and after a few lessons move on to the ‘Etre’ verbs. Whilst some of the more able and focused learners can cope with this, in my experience many learners cannot. Very often, teachers may believe students have acquired mastery over the two sets of rules based on their learners’ ability to perform successfully at cloze tasks or other mechanical grammar activities. However, in less structured activities (e.g. spontaneous speech) errors in this area will be usually rife.

Issues in acquiring the exception to the dominant Passé Composé rule are exacerbated by the fact that very few of the verbs requiring Etre are high frequency verbs, hence the students do not usually receive great exposure to them when processing classroom or naturalistic French input. This will make restructuring of the ‘have + past participle’ rule more difficult.

In this case, teaching the ‘Etre’ verbs before the ‘Avoir’ ones is a more effective strategy; once acquired the exception (Etre + past participle) through extensive modelling and practice, the learners will find it easier to learn the dominant rule due to the very frequent occurrence of ‘Avoir Verbs’ in classroom or naturalistic target language input.

The same applies to any other grammar structure where the exceptions to the rule do not occur very frequently in the instructional or naturalistic target language input. Think about irregular past participle such as ‘reçu’, ‘vecu’, ‘su’, etc. which are notoriousy less easy for students to acquire than ‘pris’ or ‘fait’, for instance.

In conclusion, L2 teachers, curriculum designers and course-book writers may want to invert the traditional instructional sequence whereby irregular forms are taught after the regular ones. Moreover, before moving from the less dominant ‘X’ rule sub-system to the dominant one, they ought to ensure as much as possible that the former has been internalized through masses of practice; in other words, that the learners master the use of the target grammar structure not simply in terms of knowing the rule but also in terms of cognitive control over its use, under Real Operating Conditions (see my post on ‘Cognitive Control’ if not clear as to what I mean here).