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.


How much cognitive theory do English language teachers need to know?

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:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Application relationships (relationships of reference) prompted by pictures, sound effects or knowledge of the world.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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".

Meaningless drills

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 ]

Meaningful drills

In order to qualify as "meaningful", a drill must provide:

1C. Recognise the potential for practising patterns

Arguments in favour of drills include:

  1. 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 [1978], 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

1D. Recognise the most suitable applications of drills at different levels of language proficiency

  1. 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.
  2. Drills are likely to be useful at the intermediate level where practice, revison and checking of learning is particularly important.
  3. 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]

Julian Dakin's ingenious use of drills in introducing us to Novish [an imaginary language]

*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:

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?

The importance of semantics conceptual awareness as a structurally-based basic language programme unfolds

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.

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:

  1. Could a particular class understand rules of the complexity of Dakin's for Novish and if they couldn't, what should the teacher do?

  2. To what extent can the teacher organise the examples for things so that the class can infer from them the "rule" without explicit explanation?

  3. 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.


Best "meaningful drills" ever published:

Most comprehensive series of mainly "meaningful" drills:

The above materials, published in the UK by Oxford Univesity Press in the 1980s, were widely used over a period of almost twenty years.