Research Bites: Skill Acquisition Theory and Language Learning


DeKeyser, R. M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Twitter Summary

DeKeyser suggests a cognitive sequence for explicitly learning and implicitly acquiring certain language skills. #researchbites

Note 1: This article presents a number of concepts, which I will try to distill below in bullet point format. Although this is a “research bite,” the article was quite in depth, so the write up will be longer than usual.

Note 2: Focus on form does not mean a focus on structures to the exclusion of meaning. In fact, focus on form is brought to attention after meaning is established. All work with forms keeps meaning central.

Background Concepts

  • What makes a grammatical rule (i.e. form) easy to learn but hard to acquire?
    • Rules can be formally simply or formally complex
    • Rules can be functionally simple or functionally complex
    • The more complex, the more difficult to acquire
    • An example of something many students struggle with is the third person -s
      • This looks formally simple (just add an ‘s’!) but may be more complex because the subject that the verb agrees with may be quite distant from the verb itself.
      • Like its form, the third person -s may actually be functionally complex, marking several things at once (i.e. present time, singular, third person), has numerous exceptions (as in modal verbs), and unrelated functional uses (marking plural nouns)
  • Some argue that easy rules are better noticed and acquired than explicitly taught
  • Cognitive research (circa 1998) showed that implicit induction (being exposed to many exemplars) was more successful than explicit induction (figuring out the rules of exemplars)
  • Other researchers found explicit instruction was more effective than alternative inductive or implicit methods, so long as the rules were simple.

DeKeyser asked: “What can be done to improve performance once abstract rules are learned?”. Applying Skill Acquisition Theory to second language learning was his attempt to answer this question.

Skill Acquisition Theory

Skill Acquisition Theory is a theory in cognitive psychology that states that learning a skill requires at least three stages:

  1. declarative knowledge – factual knowledge (i.e knowing a rule)
  2. proceduralization of knowledge – the encoding of the behavior of this knowledge
    • This is achieved by engaging in the target behavior while relying on declarative knowledge (i.e. paying attention to the rule while practicing)
  3. automatizing of knowledge – using the knowledge without thinking
    • strengthening and fine-tuning procedural knowledge through practice leads to automatizing
    • this may be accompanied by a loss of declarative knowledge

What is Practice?

Skill Acquisition Theory is all about practice. DeKeyser goes through a short history of popular teaching methods (e.g. Grammar Translation, Audiolingualism, Cognitive Code, etc.) in terms of how they conceived of practice. Most practice was based on mechanical drills or basic meaningful drills, but none used practice in any way “compatible with contemporary skill theory.” None linked practice to any deeper meaning of learning. Basically, there are three forms of practice useful for learning:

  • mechanical practice – these are behavior drills (i.e. doing some behavior repetitively) which are essentially useless for anything but basic pronunciation or refining declarative knowledge because they require the repetition of a certain behavior without focus on meaning.
  • meaningful practice – this type of practice requires working with meaning, usually working with shared knowledge between interlocutors. Nothing new is really said here.
  • communicative practice – this type of practice requires the exchanging of previously unknown information

Skill Acquisition Theory and Second Language Grammar Learning

Based on the above, in order to build fluency in the second language, students need to communicate while keeping declarative rules in their working memory. Communicative drills are one way to achieve this. These drills are tasks or activities in which students must communicate and negotiate meaning while paying attention to recently learned target rules.

Explicit vs Implicit Competing Viewpoints

The literature is full of research that shows either implicit instruction is superior, or explicit instruction is superior. How can these be reconciled?

  • Explicit or implicit learning or acquisition is dependent on the complexity of the rule. Simple rules can be learned explicitly but more complex ones may be better acquired implicitly.
  • The gradual automatizing of a rule essential means that a rule becomes implicitly acquired once it is learned and explicitly practiced. Therefore, practice leading to automatization is not at odds with implicit learning.


What DeKeyser’s article tells us is that Skill Acquisition Theory, applied to second language teaching, can inform the sequencing of some skills.

  1. Grammar should be taught explicitly so that students have a firm grasp of the declarative rules.
    1. Activities can include sentence-combining, gap-fills, and translation exercises. However, if these are “rushed or reptitive” then these tasks become useless mechanical drills.
  2. The grammar should be proceduarlized carefully. There should be time to let it sink in, rather than move right away to productive activities.
    1. DeKeyser suggests self-study or individual practice so that “no further errors are made without time pressure”. In other words, students should truly understand the rule.
    2. DeKeyser also suggests leaving any reading that was originally meant to provide comprehensible input or grammar in context for last. At this point, students should have “sufficient mental resources” to process the forms encountered, and thus it becomes a more salient form of comprehensible input.
  3. Meaning-based activities such as structured communicative drills with immediate error-correction could be the next step.
  4. Finally, more open-ended activities can be used, so long as students are encouraged to use the target language.

Personal Reaction

I find this, like all cognitive science-based ideas, truly interesting. I enjoy reading about how different methods align with what we know about cognitive processes, memory, information retrieval, and so on. One other thing I found interesting is that the steps DeKeyser outlined are very similar to the PPP approach: presentation (learning declarative knowledge), practice (proceduralizing knowledge), and production (automatizing knowledge). Although it is similar, PPP is usually applied to a single lesson whereas it is clear that a skill acquisition approach is much more drawn out. I think it’s important to note that DeKeyser was not advocating that this approach be the center of any teaching methodology, nor would it be useful for all grammatical rules, in particular, complex ones that are better learned implicitly. And he was not suggesting the linear accretion of grammatical rules. Instead, what he was suggesting, was a logical process for both learning and acquiring language rules in order to facilitate production and fluency.

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