Skill Acquisition Theory in SLA | TESL Issues

Skill Acquisition Theory

Skill acquisition theory of language acquisition draw on the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge (Anderson, 1983). Anderson (1993) has proposed a ‘cognitive behaviourist’ model called ACTR, which sees learning as building up response strengths through a twofold division into declarative memory (individual pieces of information) and procedural memory (procedures for doing things). As declarative facts get better known, they are gradually incorporated into procedures, and several procedures are combined into one, thus cutting down on the amount of memory involved.

According to DeKeyser and Sokalski (1996), there are two different views about the concept of practice. On the one hand, if adult SLA is an explicit learning, process, then one would expect to find the same patterns of learning as for other cognitive skills. They (1996) continue, “knowledge acquired in declarative (explicit) form is then transformed and automatized through analogical reasoning and specific kinds of practice” (p. 614). On the other hand, if SLA in adults draws on a specific module of the mind, or on more general implicit learning mechanisms, then neither explicit learning nor practice in production play an important role, that is, acquisition is the implicit process of generating linguistic competence from input and the capacity to produce results from this acquired competence (Krashen, 1982, 1985, 1994). According to Ellis (1988), “… the whole concept of controlled practice in language teaching should be reconsidered” (p. 1).

As DeKeyser (1997) has said, “Initial practice of a task has very different effects (proceduralisation compared to subsequent practice (automatisation) of declarative knowledge” (p. 211).

Anderson’s ACT Model helps us to explain why it is highly difficult for the majority of L2 learners to use the target language in spontaneous outline communication; the transition from declarative to automatised knowledge takes a very long time and requires a lot of good practice. One of the requirements for good practice is that the practice match the three stages of skill acquisition (DeKeyser, 2007).

Although Anderson’s skill acquisition theory can account for some aspects of language learning, especially the transition from controlled to automatic processing of linguistic knowledge, it should be noted that the theory has limitations in explaining other aspects of L2 acquisition. For example, as Anderson makes no distinction between language and other cognitive systems, his models provide little explanation for the acquisition of properties unique to language (Cook, 1993; Johnson & Johnson, 1998). ACT Models and other information processing models ignore the notion of grammatical structure, which makes up the core of language knowledge. Consequently, it is difficult to see how production systems operate in the acquisition of complex grammatical structures. It can be concluded that ACT models are useful for explaining how knowledge is proceduralised, not for explaining how new linguistic knowledge, especially complex knowledge, develops in learners’ minds (hypothesis formulation) (DeKeyser, 2007).


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