Fixed Acquisition Order? = No Evidence

I'm busily packing up the stack of books I used for my MA assignment on Methods and Approaches while looking into authentic materials, yet before I take them on back to the library, I thought I'd share a little snippet I came across.

It's this:

"Very briefly, there is substantial research evidence to support the use in language learning of the linguistically rich, culturally faithful and potentially emotive input supplied by authentic texts. What is more, there is little evidence of a fixed acquisition order, which is the rationale for the use of phased language instruction and which is often used to repudiate the use of authentic texts for language learning.  (Mishan, 2005:11)

So not to harp on about all this again but what gets me when I read this is if publishers and textbook authors aren't simply churning out carbon copies of each other, albeit with ever glossier, shinier pictures than the last lot, then why do these tomes always start off and carry on virtually the same way?

Why do teachers teach the verb to be, there is/there are, present-tense followed by present-continuous, question words, prepositions of time and place and adverbs of frequency* and so on and so forth, ad infinitum?

And to top it all off, horror of all horrors, why do so many students think this must be the way to learn a language?

Did we come to this ideology because the holy books have logos on them, thus convincing us that there were at some point, a bunch of wise and saintly academic authorities who like monks in monasteries, researched language acquisition before writing up their commandments?  Who made this "order" - who publicized it? Who pushed it?  Where did it come from?

Have our beloved and not so loved at all textbook authors ever done any research into whether this "order" works or not, feel free to state your claim if so, or have they too assumed it to be so because their editor (or his boss) said so?  I do really want to know... if this phased language instruction has ever been tested scientifically, systemically, qualitatively, quantitatively, longitudinally and by whom because I'll happily eat my hat if you can prove it so.  Show me, please, where are the peer-reviewed research articles documenting the processes that occur and don't occur - why folks must learn just so?  Surely, truly, it can not be that with almost one third of the world now learning English and millions of others learning other languages that we still can't answer this rather simple and professional question? 

Or is our industry made up of snake-oil salesmen dancing in pale moonlight?

Of course not.  But nonetheless, I'm not kidding, be it down to good intentions or not, this billion-dollar grossing industry can not really have just been compiled on good faith alone, or can it?

Because it seems so.

Today, despite that I now have access to fields of journals I will tell you that not for a want of trying can I find one single verified report showing brain scans done on language learners proving on any kind of level that the brain receives and organizes grammatical structures this way.  Countless snoringly dull case studies and endless fascinating assessments to wade through that go into the depths of our practices and into what makes a good language learner and what doesn't, what strategies teachers can get students to employ, the effects of motivation, aptitude, age and gender studies and how there really is no best method, no there isn't... and yet, nope, nary a word on this so called fixed acquisition order, stage by stage and step by step, despite the fact that so many of us somehow continue to hail the god of grammar.

Were we sold a Brooklyn Bridge and made to sell it on classroom by classroom?

Time to wise up, folks, methinks.


Image credit:
The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City by Webfan29 at en.wikipedia


Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials.  Bristol, UK: intellect.
Prabu, N. (1990). There Is No Best Method - Why? TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 24, no.2.  161-176.

Other posts
Reasons I don't like textbooks

8 Responses to “Fixed Acquisition Order? = No Evidence”

  • erin says:
    January 24, 2012

    I recently stumbled upon your blog and had to comment on this from a U.S. high school perspective - This kind of change would be so much easier if supported on a larger scale. It would also be easier (less frightening?) to execute if students were guaranteed the same language teacher for the duration of their language courses, unless all teachers in a given language department agreed on less textbook teaching. Although I believe students benefit from various teachers, what happens when one teacher does not teach those things in that way and the student is suddenly expected to have learned them in such a way when they get to a new classroom? It's certainly not right to continue teaching tables because most others do, but there's potential backlash from parents and administrators when/if students fail. Also, because so many students start language learning so late here, many already walk in frustrated and not interested in language learning. Again, not a reason to continue textbook teaching (and especially a reason not to do it!), but these students respond so well to consistency from year to year. I am a new teacher and apologize for any lack of appropriate terminology/experience here. I had to comment because I am in complete agreement with your post, am passionate about a change in the way language is taught, and would love to do something so different in my classroom. I feel very suffocated by adminstrator/departmental regulation and worry when I do not teach certain material in a particular way, my students will choke on the silly, standardized exams we have to give at the end of each semester. (For example, the Spanish and French final exams must be nearly identical, save some cultural background questions!) I look forward to reading the other comments on your post for courage and inspiration!

    January 24, 2012

    Thanks so much, Erin.

    There's so much in your comment for me to comment back on and I think you've hit the nail on the head, if only one teacher abandons the textbook as the holy grail, (s)he will most certainly face the firing squad, only because it has been assumed by the other teachers and parents and institution that learning through step-by-step instruction works which is probably why more teachers don't let them go.

    I guess though, everything changes and wish you much courage to keep on battling the status quo. To keep on critically thinking about these issues and sharing your thoughts.

    The other issue you mentioned is really interesting - that is on the idea of "failing" students through standardized tests - in many cases, it's the very same publishers creating (or at least directly involved in) these tests and examinations so the next step is that we also need to think about the ethics of this practice and ask if it benefits the students and if not the students, then who are we serving?

    Regarding students not being interested, it's probably because for the most part, the books aren't directly related to the learners' needs and interests - and if students respond to consistency, there's nothing against consistency being a part of the curriculum without it being centered around grammar steps.

  • Adam says:
    January 24, 2012

    The closest we have to research confirming this is the contents page of Headway. Sadly, this seems to have been used as the overwhelming proof that this is how things are and should be.

    Did you get my email about a guest post, BTW?

  • David Warr says:
    January 24, 2012

    Some American bought London Bridge thinking it was Tower Bridge.

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    January 30, 2012

    Hi Karenne,

    Well, there's quite a bit of research showing that there is indeed a fixed order of acquisition, just that it doesn't fit the neat little chapter outlines and time scales that language courses would have it in! Read Pienemann's Processability Theory and Teachability Hypothesis.

    That in fact proves that we can't break down language into logical grammatical steps to be acquired as a coursebook would.

    I had the great opportunity to attend a workshop of his help at the LMU Munich in 2007, and afterwards I ditched any coursebook or method that doesn't take a spare and bare task-based approach, and began favoring ad hoc work on emergent language.

  • Heath says:
    January 31, 2012

    Grammar structures in language books are based on what is believed/researched to be an order. Obviously this doesn't mean learners are incapable to learn out of order, nor does it mean every learner learns the same. In my experience the set up of the environment is key. If the setting allows for flexibility so the teachers have the freedom to teach not solely based on a rigid syllabus, students will have a great opportunity to come in contact with structures of various complexity while the context of the content will facilitate the meaning.

    February 05, 2012

    Hi ya, Anne and Heath - after doing some research into the Teachability hypothesis you mentioned, just realized that you and I were more or less on the same page (contrary to what I'd tweeted)!

    I had had a different take on Pienemann until you mentioned him, mainly because I had been more concerned with/familiar with "The teachability hypothesis predicts that instruction can only promote language acquisition if the interlanguage is close to the point where the structure to be taught is acquired in a natural setting." (1989, 60)

    i.e., basically more interesed in the relationship between L1 and L2.

    It was good to go back to his work for a refresher before commenting so thanks!

    In my mind, as Heath suggested in his comment above, you learn a turn of phrase or a new grammatical construct based on its fitting a communicative need within a specific moment of time - so, for example, if you are reading an article or even listening to a video text, you get the structure because it's based on the applicable context and if you're lucky you "notice" (Schmidt, 1990) it - you become aware of the difference between how that sentence is said in the L2 versus the way it would be said in one's own L1. (Hasn't that happened to you, I know it's happened to me - you sort of have a brain jolt when you realize the pattern is distinctly different!)

    But going back to your comment and going back to his body of work, it is really interesting to read his statement that "the structure required at each stage is a prerequisite for moving on to the following stage." (1989, 53). I do feel that to be true, both with my L2 and L3 and in noticing my students acquisition but the problem, I think, is that I am not convinced that for each learner the same fixed acquisition occurs. He also goes on to say, I think importantly, that some learners, ones who don't get the structure, can become more effective communicators than those who don't communicate because they don't get the structure...

    February 05, 2012

    ... I've been thinking that even IF there was something to the 'well-intentioned' grounding for coursebook indexes following a grammatical syllabus, that due to the fact that they race through from one structure to the next, through a six level, format.. any adherence to a structural acquisition order is lost because they don't encourage time spent on actually acquiring the first building blocks.

    Nevertheless, Ellis' weighty article is also worth reading as it's quite interesting- in his paper, he argues that "a structural syllabus cannot easily serve as a basis for developing implicit knowledge of a second language because of a learnability problem." (1990,92) And then goes into the differences between implicit and explicit knowledge, concluding with the idea that the way forward has to be through consciousness raising activities rather than practice... But, this also gives me pause:is having a rule pointed out (you know the type of grammar activity that gets you to fill in the blanks on what the rule is) really the same thing as noticing a rule by one's self?

    Is it effective?

    Ellis winds up by conceding, saying that he thinks it is "premature to dismiss the structural syllabus as a basis for L2 acquisition" --- but as I mention in the next post, Sweet Words or Monstrosities, when will it be too late, are we really going to continue to tiptoe around this issue of the fact that language textbook grammar syllabi/indexes have not been empirically researched forever?


    Ellis, R. () The Structural Syllabus and Second Language Acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, Vol 27, No.1. 92-114

    Pienemann, M. (1989). Is Language Teachable? Applied Linguistics, Vol.10, No.1 52-79.

    Schmidt,R. (1990). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics, Vol.11, No.2. 129-158.


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