The Cognitive Approach
Awareness of the rules
Cognitive theory assumes that responses are also the result of insight and intentional patterning.
Insight can be directed to (a) the concepts behind language i.e. to traditional grammar.
It can also be directed to (b) language as an operation - sets of communicative functions.
A variety of activities practised in new situations will allow assimilation of what has already been learnt or partly learnt. It will also create further situations for which existing language resources are inadequate and must accordingly be modified or extended - "accommodation". This ensures an awareness and a continuing supply of learning goals as well as aiding the motivation of the learner.
Cognitive theory therefore acknowledges the role of mistakes. See Dakin's Novish lesson in which he sets deliberate traps in The Language Laboratory and Language Learning by Julian Dakin published by Longman 1973.
- "We must design our lessons and language laboratory tapes so as to invite the learner to make the minimum number of mistakes consonant with, and conducive to, learning new rules.
- Equally important to the principles underlying the use of "meaningful drills" and also relevant to the role of mistakes in cognotive theory is the association of mentalism with notionalism.
How much cognitive theory do English language teachers need to know?
- Step 1: make your trainees supply examples of all types of "meaningful" and "meaningless" pattern drills exploiting various relationships
- Step 2: allow your trainees to experience what it is like to be in a beginners class in a language outside their current knowledge.
The "Novish" simulation makes this possible.
An appreciation of cognitive theory can be gained by reviewing the history of language teaching, especially changes in attitude during the 1970s when "meaningful drills" were being advocated and the shortcomings of "meaningless drills" were being highlighted.
Although drilling and rote learning gained their critics in the second half of the 20th century, it remains the case that:
- no language learner will proceed very far without recognition of language structure, and
- nobody will succeed in learning much without practice and repetition.
The recognition and productive use of patterns will always be an important part of language learning. Teachers adopting a cognitive approach will strive through the exercises they set to make pattern practice meaningful.
The Cognitive Approach and Meaningful Drills
1A. Know your pattern practice exercise-types
Ability to deliver the following types of pattern practice continues to be an important part of the language educator's toolkit:
- Substitution drills merely require the learner to substitute in the previous response the word provided or embedded in the next prompt. The stimulus to which the response is trained is therefore the prompt taken in conjunction with the previous response. The prompts signal the internal changes and the series of responses set the pattern. For the teacher who sees the need for isolation and practice of mechanical production of sentences to improve learners' command of structure or pronunciation.
- Mutation drills require systematic changes in the form of words provided in the prompt before a substitution is made. They may therefore be useful in practising inflection of verbs or nouns, agreements between such constituents in the sentence as subject and verb, adjective and noun (in French & Spanish) and case endings.
- Transformation drills may embody the changes outlined above but also require at least the option of a change in word order, the addition or deletion of grammatical constituents and may exact the alternation of grammatical pairs. They can accordingly practise changes from affirmative to negative, changes in voice from active to passive, changes in mood, from indicative to interrogative to imperative to subjunctive and changes in sentence-type from simple to compound or complex. A further use of Transformation Drills is in the process of word derivation.
- Application relationships (relationships of reference) prompted by pictures, sound effects or knowledge of the world.
- Collocation relationships between vocabulary items in a sentence (involving any or all of its constituents) prompted by cue words or whole sentences. The relationship is exclusively verbal and responses depend on a knowledge of lexical inter-dependencies.
- Implication relationships between sentences prompted by whole sentences and requiring the substitution of synonyms, hyponyms, antonyms, converse terms or consequences in place of their antecedents. S a word or words R its/their counterpart.
- Consequence, Hypnonmy and Antonym Drills - S: This is a wonderful book. R: Good, I'd like to read it. S: This is a fantastic record. S: Good, I'd like to hear it. R: Felicity is a very nice girl S: Good I'd like to meet her.
- Synonymy Drills
1B.Know the difference between 'meaningful' and 'meaningless' drills
Sample question: What are the principle drawbacks of mechanical or controlled drills and the ways of overcoming them?
As a method of language practice, drills are difficult to reconcile when the language becomes "meaningless".
- lack of context
- failure to offer learner an element of discrimination or choice
- failure to give rise to naturalistic speech
- they fail grammatically in many instances.
Lack of context results from behaviourist principle of focussing uniquely on form: the one-step-at-a-time approach which attempts to forestall mistakes. Unique focus on form may succeed in the controlled environment, but the benefits of structural learning may not be transferred into the real environment. Drills attempting to forestall mistakes show only positive instances of what can be done. Negative instances are not given.
The meaning conveyed by an utterance (e.g. I'm not going) is a matter of the function of the sentence as a whole in the larger context in which it occurs. A sentence does more than communicate information. It performs a role both in relation to other utterances that have been produced and as part of the interactive process involving the participants.
Without this wider context, drills run the risk of overgeneralisation. They may cause, as opposed to correct, mistakes. The absence of an element of choice within a drill undermines the semantico-grammatical category of communicative function from which conceptual meaning is derived, thus inhibiting the learning process. When the only changes are vocabulary items controlled by prompts i.e. when drills embody invariant structural patterns, the given structures may just as well be represented by the sounds TUM and TE. [ Julian Dakin 1973 ]
In order to qualify as "meaningful", a drill must provide:
- A context for the utterance it contains - without context, there is a risk of over-generalization. [ As put by D.A. Wilkins ] "The meaning conveyed by an utterance is a matter of the function of the sentence (utterance) as a whole in the larger context in which it occurs.
- It should give rise to naturalistic language
- It should allow the learner some element of choice or discrimination.
1C. Recognise the potential for practising patterns
Arguments in favour of drills include:
- Their track record and the variety of exercise-types that they offer
There have been many successful courses which have been largely dependent on drills. An early example was the Minimal Language Acquisition Programme, designed by Charles Fries and Robert Lado. A later example was Streamline Departures by Bernard Hartley and Peter Viney , a UK English course book with a remarkable long shelf life, though the orginal method recommended in the Teacher's Book depended on many of the following drill-types.
- The role of repetition - a principle of both behaviourist and cognitive theories of learning
Regardless of preferences for behaviourist or cognitive, most teachers would find a place for repetition (for purposes of practice & consolidation), comparison (differentiation through minimal pairs or paired grammatical forms).
- Depending on their nature and scope, drills may EITHER
Given sufficient definition of aims and the avoidance of monotony, artificiality and inefficiency, drills must surely contribute to language learning by virtue of their many useful applications.
- elicit sequences of unrelated sentences from the learner OR
- build up something which begins to look like connected spoken prose.
1D. Recognise the most suitable applications of drills at different levels of language proficiency
- Drills are likely to be useful at elementary level or in the "practice phase" of a lesson where limitation of the learning goal is desirable.
- Drills are likely to be useful at the intermediate level where practice, revison and checking of learning is particularly important.
- Drills are likely to be useful at the advanced level to diagnose and iron out a particular difficulty.
Drills may be tried with the whole class or used on an individual basis. In this modern age of aps which can be run on a mobile phone, capable of delivering text/audio/picture cues, there is better scope than ever for providing pattern practice to learners carryin their own self-access centres in their pocket. The limitations of drills are clearly matched by useful possibilities, which publishers have been slow to exploit in the 21st century.
2. Understand the nature of the conceptual problems involved in learning a new language.
Attempts are often made within language teacher training to put trainees into situations similar to those encountered by people learning a new language for the first time. This can be done if the trainer knows a language which is new to all the trainees. I was once set the task of learning to read and write using the Arabic alphabet, including the joins of different handwritten letters. This kind of task provided the opportunity to explore conceptual problems.
The best teacher development task for promoting awareness of the cognitive challenge posed by a completely new language, appears in Julian Dakin's "The Language Laboratory and Language Learning" midway through chapter 2 on the nature of language learning. The section is headed: Novish - An experiment in language learning.
"Novish" is a fictitious language designed especially to simulate conditions experienced in real language learning situations. The chapter on Novish is also reproduced in The Edinburgh Course of Applied Linguistics [a four volume publication]
*Please note: the headings in blue (below) deserve the consideration of anybody setting out to teach a language. The bullet points which follow them refer to visuals within Chapter 2 of Julian Dakin's book. You may need to have the book open to follow the examples and grasp the arguments which are being made.
A practical demonstration of language learning supported by Cognitive theory: a problem-solving approach.
Dakin's introduction to Novish (The Language Laboratory & Language Learning Longman 1973 Chapter 2) is hardly a programme which invites "the minimum number of mistakes consonant with, and conducive to, learning new rules." Indeed, he readily admits that he was going deliberately out of his way to trap us.
The Novish structures, which contain the conceptual difficulties, perform such basic functions as identification and verification of class:
- N.B. "whether a thing grows or not" is of great social & cultural importance to native Novish speakers. Other languages divide nouns into genders such as "masculine" and "feminine", even when the nouns are inanimate objects with no sexual gender. Novish is perhaps more logical than French or Spanish in its rule system for defining grammatical categories.
The behaviourist could not realistically avoid the "sademane" / "sadegru" distinction through selection or careful grading.
Dakin forces us into traps by including problem-solving in the drills he presents in his programme for learning Novish. Our mistakes very often derive from lack of conceptual awareness and failure to grasp important semantic criteria. Although the conversion of "rule" to speaking habit is likely to be a slower more conscious process in the case of L2 learners, take heart! Novish children make the same mistakes!!
How important is it to understand the underlying rule for each step?
- Under Skinner's model of language behaviour formed through the application of "habits", consciousness of underlying rules is not of any importance.
- Chomsky's conception of language as "rule-governed" would imply that we must at the very least allow our students to induce the rules.
- Carroll defines "rule" as "simply a formal, usually vebal, statement of the conditions under which something is expected to occur or not to occur under certain sanctions." He adds that it is a construct in some sense independent of actual behaviour.
Carroll illustrates this claim by citing the fact that people can speak a language without any conscious knowledge or application of the rules that underlie their language.
The importance of semantics conceptual awareness as a structurally-based basic language programme unfolds
- Novish Frame 2: naming six different objects. "Sademane" is apparently used to define them. Insufficient knowledge of Novish to allow many L2 analogies, so we are tempted to measure each new item using L1 concepts as a gauge.
- Novish Frame 3 introduces a refinement. Correct form is "Sademanena gal". However, the underlying rule is less important since a Novish speaker would probably understand our meaning if we said "Sademanena gal".
- Novish Frame 6 introduces the use of "Sademane" in a question. It is noticeable that "Sademane" or "Sademanena" is replaced by "Sadestil" when verification is given.
At this stage, we think we know what is being verified just as we think we know what is being asked, but we are already on dangerous ground.
From this point, conceptual awareness of the distinction which Novish speakers make between "things that grow" and "things that don't grow" becomes increasingly important.
- Novish Frame 9. The learner will quickly recognise "sadegru" as a second word he will sometimes have to use (as opposed to "sademane") in giving confirmation. Dakin has deliberately selected nouns which will lead to a false distinction: objects v people.
Whether it is justifiable for a teacher to lead his students into a trap and then to mystify them with "Ye sadegru opl" is a question in its own right.
At what stage should a teacher make learners aware of the rules rather than trying to trap them?
Clearly the proper distinction is one of some importance and any mystification should certainly not be prolonged beyond the point where Ss recognise that they have something new to learn.
To depend on "mim-mem" techniques to somehow unconsciously teach this distinction is clearly ludicrous.
It is widely recognised that learning language purely by imitation and repetition is uneconomical and that if each new speech pattern had to be learnt by imitation the task would be endless.
The catalogue of things which 'grow' and 'don't grow' is enormous and the structure under consideration is of fundamental importance and seems likely to allow further creation by analogy. Therefore in frames 9-12 the underlying rule must be realised.
The dangers of over-generalizing when forming new rules
Novish Frames 13 & 14 at first sight seem to be analogous to language concepts with which we are familiar. "Nu sadegru poi, sadestil tavl!" would appear to mean "No, it isn't a boy, it's a table.
Little do we suspect that the first phrase indicates that the table "doesn't grow like a boy".
We cannot develop a sound basis for further analogy until we have encountered steps 15 & 16.
- Novish Frames 15 & 16. Here we learn that in comparing and contrasting different objects or people Novish speakers are vitally concerned with difference or even similarity of class as well as difference in identity.
The words "Ye" or "Nu" are applied essentially to class likenesses and differences and not to precise definition of what an object or person is or is not.
I can imagine many potential misunderstandings in situations where English speakers might use or take "Ye" to indicate a particular identity when what a Novish speaker understands is common membership of a certain group:
Q: Ki ku sademane? A: Ye sadegru ku, sadegru Margaret!
Can language learning proceed without conceptual awareness and knowledge of culture?
Students should be given the chance to share the concepts of their target language. To deny them of what they are ready for, is to overlook what Chomsky recognised as the "creative aspect" of language use. Such a denial would serve to discourage creation by analogy, to kill the spirit of enquiry and to isolate the learner from a knowledge of the utterances which represent his achievements.
Classroom techniques: practical problems in (cognitive) learning and teaching:
- Could a particular class understand rules of the complexity of Dakin's for Novish and if they couldn't, what should the teacher do?
- To what extent can the teacher organise the examples for things so that the class can infer from them the "rule" without explicit explanation?
- How can the teacher be sure that a class or a particular learner has actually inferred correctly?
Parallels between Dakin's rules for Novish and the rules which elementary learners of English need to know
Not all rules met in elementary English classes are so complex as those of Novish. Many things in English are much easier to work out from examples than this, and so might not need such "rules".
There are still a number of things that do appear to require explicit explanation, such as "mass" and "unit" nouns, the contrast between Present Perfect and Past, etc.
Did all behaviourists imagine that language learning could proceed without formulations of rules?
Sophisticated behaviourists like Fries [ in Language Learning ] did not suppose that the mind was a mechanism of habits, and no more. Fries merely argued that, given that it was very sophisticated and subtle, the human mind was capable of inferring underlying rules if the examples were well-chosen. Fries thought that the best way to infer underlying rules was through practice (of the pattern drill type) supported by judicious explanation of rules at times. Read Fries' own introduction to English Pattern Practices.
- The Language Laboratory and Language Learning by Julian Dakin (Longman 1973).
- Teaching Oral English by Donn Byrne (Longman).
Best "meaningful drills" ever published:
- Kernel Lessons Intermediate Recorded Drills: Tapescripts by Rober O'Neill, Roy Kingsbury and Roger Scott..
- Kernel Lessons Plus Laboratory Drills/Tapescript by Robert O'Neill, Longman Group Ltd (c) Eurozentren 1974
These are set at the higher intermediate level. Superb use of situational context: e.g. Unit 10: law court as setting in which to practise Third Conditional forms..
Most comprehensive series of mainly "meaningful" drills:
- Streamline Departures Speechwork (elementary level);
- Streamline Connections Speechwork (pre-intermediate to intermediate);
- Streamline Destinations Speechwork (intermediate to higher intermediate).
The above materials, published in the UK by Oxford Univesity Press in the 1980s, were widely used over a period of almost twenty years.
- A History of English Language Teaching by A.P.R.Howatt with H.G.Widdowson buy new: 2nd Revised edition  or buy used 1st edition