Zhao & MacWhinney - Learning the English Article
English Article Usage
Documentation of this study is currently in progress.
Background and Significance
The current project focuses on the development of a cognitive tutoring system for the teaching of English articles – one of the most difficult grammatical forms for second language learners to learn and master. Articles are particularly difficult for learners whose first language (e.g., Chinese and Japanese) does not use articles. There are three factors that make this a difficult target structure: (1) there are dozens of difficult and conflicting rules determining article choice; (2) misuses of the articles usually do not cause miscommunication and therefore learners tend to ignore these errors; and (3) classroom instruction does not provide enough opportunities for learning many of the functions and cues that determine article choice. Cognitive tutoring systems can provide address each of these problems by giving simple illustrations of relevant cues, providing consistent feedback, and sampling across a wide range of genre types and usages.
The research goal of the article tutor project is to promote robust learning and mastery of the English articles among Chinese EFL learners illuminated by principles from: (1) Experimental Psychology: Practices make perfect; Feedback promotes learning; (2) Developmental Psycholinguistics: Language is learned in context; Cue conflicts are crucial for learning; (3) Human-Computer Interaction: rule-based and exemplar-based instruction promotes learning in different ways; and (4) Second Language Acquisition: explicit types of instruction is in general more effective than implicit types of instruction; accurate metalinguistic knowledge representation is important. Synthesizing the above principles, the Cognitive Article Tutor designs exercise with nine genres of texts with rich article usages and provides explicit instruction in the form of explicit feedback.
Explicit versus implicit instruction:
There is a major distinction between explicit and implicit instruction in second language teaching and learning. This distinction is often operationalized in terms of explicit and implicit feedback given to students in the instructional settings. Following Dekeyser (1995), explicit instruction consists of explicit deduction (explicit rule presentation) or explicit induction (instructions to orient learner attention to forms or to induce metalinguistic hypotheses); implicit instruction indicated that no explicit rule statement took place in the treatment and no instructions attending to particular forms or formulating metalinguistic hypothesis were given to learners. Norris & Ortega (2000) did a meta-analysis study and examined the effectiveness of instruction methods in different instructional settings. They concluded that, in general, explicit types of instruction are more effective than implicit types of instruction.
Similar to the general findings of L2 instructional studies, the available intelligent computer assisted language learning studies also suggested that explicit feedback is superior to implicit feedback especially when the learning task involves relatively complex structures whose grammatical rules are not salient in light of the examples. The most effective iCALL feedback is to “to respond to errors by giving a metalinguistic explanation in the form of a rule” (Hanson, p. 49) This general finding gives strength to the potential benefit of using cognitive tutor to teach the English articles, which is a complex and non-salient grammatical category.
Does the Cognitive Article Tutor that provides practice with corresponding explicit feedback increase L2 learners' performance of article usage in written production?
The Cognitive Article Tutor that provides practice with corresponding explicit feedback helps to increase L2 learners' performance of article usage in written production.
The independent variable of the current study is the explicit feedback provided by the Cognitive Article Tutor.
The explicit feedback of each grammatical rule is associated with one type of usage of English articles. Each explicit feedback is composed of three parts: (1) one grammatical rule name, (2) an explanation of the rule, and (3) several examples to further explain the rule. Whenever a learner make a mistake with one article choice, the tutor automatically provides explicit feedback composed of the above three levels of explanation.
For example, one rule of the English articles is named "Non-count Abstract Noun". This is a rule associated with the zero article. The rule explanation describes as follows: "The article should be omitted when referring to a non-count abstract concept, emotion, or principle, even if this noun is modified by a preceding adjective". Following that, several examples are given to further explain the rule: (a) Prudence is the better part of valor, (b) Friction tends to resist gravity, (c) Statistical analysis could clear up the issue, and (d) I strive for clarity in my prose.