Re-visiting Krashen

The first 2021 issue of the Foreign Language Annals Journal has a special section devoted to a discussion of “Krashen forty years later”. The lead article by Lichten and Van Patten asks “Was Krashen right?” and concludes that yes, mostly he was.

Lichten and Van Patten look at 3 issues:

  • The Acquisition‐Learning Distinction,
  •  The Natural Order Hypothesis,
  • The Input Hypothesis.

And they argue that “these ideas persist today as the following constructs:

  • implicit versus explicit learning,
  • ordered development,
  • a central role for communicatively embedded input in all theories of second language acquisition”.

The following updates to Krashen’s work are offered:

1.  The Acquisition/learning distinction

The complex and abstract mental representation of language is mainly built up through implicit learning processes as learners attempt to comprehend messages directed to them in the language. Explicit learning plays a more minor role in the language acquisition process, contributing to metalinguistic knowledge rather than mental representation of language.

2. The Natural Order Hypothesis

This is replaced with the ‘Ordered Development Hypothesis’:

The evolution of the learner’s linguistic system occurs in ordered and predictable ways, and is largely impervious to outside influence such as instruction and explicit practice.

3 The Input Hypothesis

The principal data for the acquisition of language is found in the communicatively embedded comprehensible input that learners receive. Comprehension precedes production in the acquisition process.

Pedagogic Implications

Finally, the authors suggest 2 pedagogic implications:

1. Learners need exposure to communicatively embedded input in order for language to grow in their heads. …Leaners should be actively engaged in trying to comprehend language and interpret meaning from the outset.

2. The explicit teaching, learning, and testing of textbook grammar rules and grammatical forms should be minimized, as it does not lead directly or even indirectly to the development of mental representation that underlies language use. Instructors need to understand that the explicit learning of surface features and rules of language leads to explicit knowledge of the same, but that this explicit knowledge plays little to no role in language acquisition as normally defined.   

Discussion

Note the clear teaching implications, particularly this: the explicit learning of grammar rules leads to explicit knowledge which plays “little to no role” in language acquisition.

What reasons and evidence do the authors give to support their arguments? They draw on more than 50 years research into SLA by those who focus on the psychological process of language learning, of what goes on in the mind of a language learner. They demonstrate that we learn languages in a way that differs from the way we learn other subjects like geography or biology. The difference between declarative and procedural knowledge is fundamental to an understanding of language learning. The more we learn about the psychological process of language learning, the more we appreciate the distinction between learning about an L2,and learning how to use it for communicative purposes.

All the evidence of SLA research refutes the current approach to ELT which is based on the false assumption that learners need to have the L2 explained to them, bit by bit, before they can practice using it, bit by bit. All the evidence suggests that language is not a subject in the curriculum best treated as an object of study. Rather, learning an L2 is best done by engaging learners in using it, allowing learners to slowly work out for themselves, through implicit development of their interlanguages, how the L2 works, albeit with timely teacher interventions that can speed up the process.     

12 thoughts on “Re-visiting Krashen

  1. I haven’t seen the paper, but based on Geoff’s summary of it, it’s very hard to see how Krashen was ‘right’.
    1. Acquisition/Learning: the distinction is sensible, and, I would say, non-controversial, and was. What is controversial, and what made K’s hypothesis interesting, is the claim that ‘learning cannot become acquisition’. Interesting, and probably wrong. It depends, of course, on what is the object of the explicit learning. Nobody thinks–and I mean nobody–that telling a learner about Principle B will lead to acquisition of Principle B. But it doesn’t follow that, say, telling a learner what a word means is pointless. In between those two examples is a wide range of linguistic phenomena, some of which are probably amenable to acquisition via explicit learning.
    2. Natural Order
    K’s NO Hypothesis is not the same as L&VP’s ‘Ordered Development Hypothesis’. K specifically had in mind the acquisition order of ‘structures’, as in the famous morpheme studies. As I pointed out in my ‘Occam’s Razor’ pape, the hypothesis is, to put it mildly, untenable. (I’d be curious to know what specific predictions L&VP think we can make about L2 development.)
    3. Input
    L&VP: ‘The principal data for the acquisition of language is found in the communicatively embedded comprehensible input that learners receive.’ Well, duh. (Actually, learners don’t receive input; see Carroll.) K had something more specific in mind: “We acquire by understanding language that contains structure a bit beyond our current level of competence (i+1). This is done with the help of context or extra-linguistic information.” He doesn’t make it clear what i+1 is: sometimes a structure not yet acquired, sometimes the learner’s competence at a stage after i. Nor does he tell us what a structure is. (see White)
    I wrote a critique of Krashen’s putative theory ages 40 years ago; in the intervening 40 years, I’ve seen nothing to modify that critique, and certainly nothing to suggest that Krashen was ‘right’.
    Gregg, K.R. 1984. Krashen’s Monitor and Occam’s Razor. Applied Linguistics 5:79-100.
    White, L. 1987. Against comprehensible input. Applied Linguistics 8:95-110.

  2. Thanks for this Kevin. I agree with your criticisms, particulalry of comprehensible input – i+1. But I’d say that Krashen needs recognising for exposing the inefficaciousness of ELT practice – there’s mounting consensus about the very limited value of concentrating on declarative knowledge in the hope that practice will convert it into procedural knowledge.

  3. Thanks, Geoff.

    I had some questions.

    allowing learners to slowly work out for themselves, through implicit development of their interlanguages, how the L2 works

    Since almost all language learners, including many young learners, at least those from about the age of 10 or 11 and over, come to language classes with often quite fixed ideas about what a language is, what a second or foreign is, and how these “work” …

    1) Do the “timely teacher interventions that can speed up the process” include some form of explicit learner training which would help to unlearn some of those fixed ideas they may bring to the language class with them?

    2) If yes, what kind of metalinguistic knowledge would be most appropriate to help them understand why the teacher isn’t, for example, teaching explicit grammar points?

    3) If “[c]omprehension precedes production in the acquisition process”, isn’t metalinguistic knowledge actually really quite helpful in providing a shared language to help learners understand (a) that what they are looking at is a recurring language feature; (b) that this feature tends to occur in certain recurring contexts to perform certain kinds of function; (c) how to recognise that feature in the future and ask questions about it; (d) feedback comments on their own attempts to use these features?

    4) Still thinking about learner expectations, what should be the appropriate reaction to a learner who expliicitly asks for the kind of metalinguistic information about the language? Should the teacher answer the question, drawing on explicit knowledge of the language, or should they explain patiently to the learner that “explicit learning of surface features and rules of language leads to explicit knowledge of the same, but that this explicit knowledge plays little to no role in language acquisition as normally defined”?

    5) What role, if any, do grammar references written for students (such as those by Swan or Biber, Conrad, and Leech) and so on play?

  4. Hi Peter (Peter, right? Sorry if it’s not),

    First, I’m not sure what “fixed ideas about what a language is, what a second or foreign is, and how these “work” …” you refer to. There’s obviously a lot of variability in these “fixed ideas”, but I suppose you mean that most students who do courses in English as an L2 expect to be told about the formal aspects of the L2 in teacher-fronted, grammar-based instruction. There’s not much research that I know of which directly addresses this; most of it seems to be about motivation and a lot on teacher beliefs versus student beliefs. As to the latter, the research shows that it’s the teachers more than the students who seem to suffer from the mistaken belief that explicit instruction about grammar, or about lexical-chunks -driven grammar, should take priority. Please tell me if I’m wrong, which I might well be – yet again.

    Still, it sounds plausible that students expect a course in English as an L2 to tell them about its grammar. If they do, my experience as a teacher (30 years+) and as a colleague of teachers who wanted to buck the trend, is that students are willing to go along with a different approach. If you explain to students at the start of the course that you’re not going to do the grammar (but neither are you going to completely ignore it,), that you’re going to get them doing tasks where they use the language, that you’ll regularly check with them thru feedback sessions about how they feel about their progress, and that they do well on the tests they have to take which focus, wrongly, on their explicit knowledge about the language, then they will happily go along on the ride. There’s also the 2019 meta-analysis of TBLT implementation and evaluation by Bryfonski, & McKay which shows that courses which flout the “fixed ideas” you refer to are very well-received.

    To the issues, then. Answers come after the ***

    1) Do the “timely teacher interventions that can speed up the process” include some form of explicit learner training which would help to unlearn some of those fixed ideas they may bring to the language class with them?
    *** Not “training” exactly, but teachers who adopt a TBLT or Dogme approach, for example, deal with these expectations by demonstrating that a focus on meaning, with timely, reactive switches to focus on form gives good results.

    2) If yes, what kind of metalinguistic knowledge would be most appropriate to help them understand why the teacher isn’t, for example, teaching explicit grammar points?

    *** I take metalinguistic knowledge to mean conscious knowledge of the formal aspects of the L2. So the question seems to be the same: why aren’t we studying grammar? The teacher should explain why, maybe by doing what I described above.

    3) If “[c]omprehension precedes production in the acquisition process”, isn’t metalinguistic knowledge actually really quite helpful in providing a shared language to help learners understand (a) that what they are looking at is a recurring language feature; (b) that this feature tends to occur in certain recurring contexts to perform certain kinds of function; (c) how to recognise that feature in the future and ask questions about it; (d) feedback comments on their own attempts to use these features?

    *** I don’t think Krashen’s claim that comprehension precedes production in the acquisition process has any force, I don’t accept his construct of input (so widely used now that it goes unchallenged) and I think the “i+1” construct of comprehensible input is both too vague to mean anything important (what the hell does i+1 mean?!) and fundamentally mistaken in that it relies on the faulty construct of input. I agree with Gregg’s critique of Krashen’s theory, and I side, as Gregg does, I think, with Carroll

    “The view that input is comprehended speech is mistaken. Comprehending speech ..happens as a consequence of a successful parse of the speech signal. Before one can successfully parse the L2, one must learn it’s grammatical properties. Krashen got it backwards!” (Carroll, 2001, p. 78).

    I’m with Carroll and with those who lean on Jackendoff’s (1992) Representational Modularity view. I’ve done a series of posts on this – put “Carroll” in the “Search” box on the right. Challenging Krashen’s construct of input leads, counter-intuitively you might think, to challenging Schmidt’s construct of noticing. As Gregg says, you can’t notice any parts of grammar of the L2 from external stimuli – by definition.

    None of which goes very far to answer your question. IMHO, talking to students about the L2 in the way you suggest – the recurrence of a language feature, its tendency to occur in certain recurring contexts to perform certain kinds of function, etc., – is largely a waste of time. If your students are enrolled in a course preparing for the Cambridge Proficiency exam and they like this sort of discussion -and I’ve taught such courses – then terrific.

    4) … what should be the appropriate reaction to a learner who expliicitly asks for the kind of metalinguistic information about the language? Should the teacher answer the question, drawing on explicit knowledge of the language, or should they explain patiently to the learner that “explicit learning of surface features and rules of language leads to explicit knowledge of the same, but that this explicit knowledge plays little to no role in language acquisition as normally defined”?

    *** The teacher should answer the question.

    5) What role, if any, do grammar references written for students (such as those by Swan or Biber, Conrad, and Leech) and so on play?

    *** They should be well studied by teachers and one of them – Swan I’d say – should be recommended to students to consult.

  5. Hi Geoff,

    This is Nick (White).

    Firstly, apologies if the questions came across as confrontational and/or inappropriate. That was not the intention. But also many thanks indeed for taking the time to respond at length and in detail to my questions.

    There is absolutely “a lot of variability” in what I described as “fixed ideas”. I certainly did not mean to suggest that all students have exactly the same “fixed idea”. Though certainly, there are many common threads that can be picked up, such as these examples (not the exact words, but all of which have been said to by students at one time or another):

    [1] “My language is simpler than English. We have one meaning for one word.” (Indonesian student)

    [2] “Every morning, I learn 20 new words while doing my workout routine.” (Russian student)

    [3] “I look up every word as I’m reading and make a note of it. It takes a long time, but it helps me understand it completely and improves my English.” (Thai student)

    [4] “We have the same in my language.” (Romanian student)

    [5] “My name is Elena. But it’s too difficult for you so you can call me ‘Helen’” (Russian student)

    [6] “I want to learn English at the British Council because I want to learn the real English, the English of Shakespeare, not American English.” (Mexican student).

    So in other words, I meant something much, much broader than just the idea that students may come with an expectation that they will be “told about the formal aspects of the L2 in teacher-fronted, grammar-based instruction”. (Some do, sure, but not all of them as you rightly point out. In fact, in some contexts I’ve worked in the opposite is the case – that they have come to the private language class with a native speaker teacher for conversation and fluency.).

    I meant such things as their perceptions of English as compared to their own language (as in [1] and [4]); their ‘common sense’ understandings of the translatability of one language into another and back again (as in [1]-[4]); their attitudes to speakers of English and what it means to them (as in [5] and [6]); their approaches to scaling English as if it were a mountain climb (as in [2] and [3]). And I also meant the kind of things that I think are discussed in research on motivation, anxiety, and in the beliefs about language learning.

    I’ll certainly look through your posts on Caroll, thank you for that recommendation.

    … talking to students about the L2 in the way you suggest – the recurrence of a language feature, its tendency to occur in certain recurring contexts to perform certain kinds of function, etc., – is largely a waste of time …

    That’s fine, but, and again I don’t mean to be obtuse, but how does that comment square with your answer to 5?

    They should be well studied by teachers and one of them – Swan I’d say – should be recommended to students to consult.

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood you here (and apologies if that’s the case) but what is it they would need to consult in those books, and why/for what purpose (if I’ve understood you correctly you see it as “largely a waste of time”)?

    In any case, I do appreciate the time taken to respond and the suggestions and advice you’ve offered – much appreciated.

    Nick

  6. Hi Nick,

    Absolutely no need for apologies – I didn’t take your questions to be confrontational or inappropriate.

    Thanks for your clarification about students’ ideas and expectations.

    As to the reply about pedagogical grammars like Swan’s, I think all teachers should have at least one of these as a reference they can go to when the need arises. And I think students who enjoy them or feel the benefit of consulting them should be encouraged to do so. I don’t think learning about formal aspects of the L2 is a waste of time, just that basing a syllabus on explaining bits of the L2 before practicing them is inefficacious. As I said, I don’t accept the Comprehensive Input hypothesis, or the acquisition / learning dichtotomy Krashen argues for. I agree with Long, Nick Ellis and others who stress the importance of some explicit attention to grammar, collocations, pronunciation, etc., but reactively, when asked to do so by students, or when it helps them improve their ability to use the L2. Corrective feedback during task performance, and post-task feedback are two examples. This contrasts with the the way cousebooks prioritise explicit instruction by using a sythetic syllabus which has decided in advance that, among other things, the past tense, the present perfect, ‘going to’, common idiomatic expressions used to talk about shopping, and different ways we pronounce the “ed” in the past tense of regular verbs, will all be dealt with in the first three units.

    Thanks for your interest in the post, and I hope to hear from you again soon.

  7. “I agree with Long, Nick Ellis and others who stress the importance of some explicit attention to grammar, collocations, pronunciation, etc., but reactively, [1] when asked to do so by students, or [2] when it helps them improve their ability to use the L2. ”
    [1] So when Max, one of 30 students in the class, asks me about ‘that’ in relative clauses, I’m supposed to stop what we’re doing to explain?
    [2] (Aside from the fact that you can’t know if it helps until you’ve given the explicit attention and waited for a while to see if the student’s relevant production improves): You’re saying, it seems to me, either [a] contra Krashen, that ‘learning can become acquisition’ , or [b] that explicit instruction can lead to improved production (as well as comprehension?). I suspect that both [a] and [b] are true, but then the case against coursebooks seems weaker.
    An aside: if Mura is out there, could he explain to me what his message meant? I can’t tell.

  8. 1. No, but I’d assure Max that I’d answer his question later, maybe not involving the rest of the class.

    2. The Lichten and Van Patten article argues that explicit learning doesn’t result in procedural knowledge. N. Ellis thinks it can “re-set the dial” (bringing students’ attention to some (e.g. non-salient) feature can result in their “noticing” it in such a way that subsequent examples are processed implicitly) and by 2015 Mike Long had been persuaded. I’m not persuaded as you know, but I think explicit instruction can and often does lead to both improved production and comprehension. My argument against courseboooks is not that they’re completely useless, but that they are considerably less efficacious than TBLT or Dogme or certain types of immersion and CLIL courses. They also form a key part of today’s huge multi-billion dollar industry that packages, promotes and sells a range of products on the market. The CEFR, high stakes exams like IELTS and TOEFL, teacher education and certification, and the A1 to C2 courses offered at primary, secondary and tertiary level by private and public institutions are all motivated more by profit than by considerations of good, efficacious educational practice.

    I hope Mura reads your comment and replies.

  9. Just to be clear, I’m not defending coursebooks, much less the corrupt system that pushes them. But as I’ve noticed before, you and I are always correct. Keep it up.

  10. Absolutely no need for apologies – I didn’t take your questions to be confrontational or inappropriate.

    That’s good and thanks for getting back to me (apologies for the delay in responding).

    I agree with Long, Nick Ellis and others who stress the importance of some explicit attention to grammar, collocations, pronunciation, etc., but reactively, when asked to do so by students, or when it helps them improve their ability to use the L2. Corrective feedback during task performance, and post-task feedback are two examples.

    Again, thanks for this.

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