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Input Processing Theory | TESL Issues

Published on July 31st, 2017 | Last updated on November 26th, 2019 by | Category: TESOL / TESL Issues through CALL | No Comments on Input Processing Theory | TESL Issues | 95 Views | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Input Processing Theory

Input Processing Theory

VanPatten’s (1996) Input Processing Theory is based on the standard information processing viewpoint. Namely, working memory is limited in capacity (at least in terms of each modality), making it difficult for learners to attend concurrently to different stimuli in the input. He identified ‘detection’ as the key attentional process, noting that detecting one bit of information can interfere with the detection of others by consuming available resources in working memory. Thus, for VanPatten, the main issue is how learners allocate attentional resources during online processing and in particular what causes them to detect certain stimuli in the input and not others. 

Input Processing Hypothesis deals with how learners comprehend utterances and, particularly, how they assign form-meaning relationships (Gass & Selinker, 2008).

VanPatten formulated a number of input-processing principles to explain learners’ attentional priorities (VanPatten, 2007, pp. 268-269):

  • Principles of L2 Input processing:
    1. The Primacy of Meaning Principle: Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form.
    2. The Primacy of Content Words Principle: Learners process content words in the input before anything else.
    3. The Lexical Preference Principle: Learners prefer processing lexical items to grammatical items.
    4. Learners prefer processing ‘more meaningful’ morphology before ‘less or non-meaningful morphology’.
    5. For learners to process form that is not meaningful, they must be able to process informational and communicative content at no (or little) cost to attention.
    6. The Preference for Non-redundancy Principle: Learners are more likely to process nonredundant meaningful grammatical forms before they process redundant meaningful forms.
    7. The Meaning before Non-meaning Principle: Learners are more likely to process meaningful grammatical forms before non-meaningful forms irrespective of redundancy.
    8. The Availability of Resources Principle: For learners to process either redundant meaningful grammatical forms or non-meaningful forms, the processing of oversal sentential meaning must not drain available processing resources.
    9. The Sentence Location Principle: Learners tend to process items in sentence-initial position before those in final position and those in medial position.
  • The First Noun Principle: Learners tend to assign subject or agent status to the first (pro)noun they encounter in a sentence.
    1. The Lexical Semantics Principle: Lexical semantics of verbs may attenuate learners’ reliance on the first noun principle.
    2. The Event Probabilities Principle: Event probabilities may attenuate learners’ reliance on the first noun principle.
    3. The Contextual Constraint Principle: Learners may rely less on the first noun principle if preceding context constraints the possible interpretation of the following clause or sentence.

These principles and their corollaries are an attempt to account for how processing takes place—from meaning (Principle 1) to form (Principle 2). Within each principle are corollaries which attempt to account for why certain parts of an utterance/sentence take centre stage rather than others (content words, lexical items before forms, non-redundant information, etc.) and why meaning might override form (e.g. lexical semantics real-world knowledge/event, and context).

VanPatten’s Input Processing principles owe much to his 1990s study. This addressed the key question: “What happens when learners are asked to attend to meaning and form together or just to meaning or form?” When learners attend to form, their comprehension suffer. VanPatten concludes that meaning and form compete for learners’ attention and that only when learners can understand input easily are they able to attend to form. VanPatten’s results were replicated in a study based on a reading text by Wong (2001).


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