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Automaticity in Language Teaching & Learning

Much like learning, teaching is a complex process that evolves and becomes easier over time.  Student teachers and beginning teachers, such as Lily, notice how experienced teachers seem to be able to teach effortlessly with an almost automatic response to their environment.   This automaticity is due to many years of practice, problem solving and routinisation.  In language education, the theory of automaticity applies to both teaching and learning a language.  In both cases the more often an activity is done, the more automatic it becomes.  In this section we will explore automaticity and its implications for the classroom.

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Lily's case study

What is automaticity?

Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low level details that are required; this is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.  For instance, when riding a bicycle we do not have to concentrate on turning the pedals, balancing, and holding on to the handlebars but instead those processes are automatic and we can concentrate on watching the road and traffic around us.

Some other examples of automaticity are:

  • Driving a car
  • Speaking
  • Walking/running

For language learning, Segalowitz (2003) characterized automaticity as a more efficient, more accurate, and more stable performance. As such, automaticity is often linked with fluency in language learning.

In your opinion, why do you think automaticity is important for teachers and learners?

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What are the pedagogical implication of automaticity?

Automaticity applies to both teaching and learning a language.  In both cases the more often an activity is done, the more automatic it becomes.   The theory of automaticity relates to theories of cognitive capacity and cognitive load, which suggest that at any given time we have a finite amount of attention to give to an activity or process. When a process becomes more automatic, less attention is needed and attention can therefore be given to other processes or tasks.

In teaching, automaticity can greatly help by allowing teachers to concentrate more on their students and the learning that is taking place. Over time and with experience  teachers are able to make certain processes automatic (such as planning, instruction and classroom management), which in turn frees up more attention for other processes. 

Similar to teaching, promoting automaticity in learning will allow students to process information quickly and accurately which will in turn help with fluency.

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How can I promote automaticity in the classroom?

All automaticity proposals for enhancing SLA are based, in one way or another, on the idea that extended practice under particular conditions and circumstances will increase fluency by developing automaticity.  The challenge with using extensive drill and practice activities, however, is that they are usually boring for students which reduces motivation and investment in the language.   The job of the language teacher is to incorporate activities that promote automaticity in way that provides opportunity for transfer to new situations, real-life communication and materials that relate to students’ interests.

What are some activities that can promote automaticity in the classroom?

The best way to promote automaticity is to get students to practice using their language through Getting It and Using It activities.  It is important for teachers to understand that it takes time to learn and that automaticity will not develop overnight or even after several lessons.  Some strategies to consider in order to promote automaticity include:

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Enhancing automaticity through task-based language learning.

Learning and Automaticity: A Connectionist Explanation of the Stroop Effect

Segalowitz N. (2003) ‘Automaticity and second languages’. In Doughty CJ and Long MH (Eds.). The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition.(Blackwell, Malden/Oxford/Carlton) pp. 382–408.

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Copyright © Olenka Bilash May 2009 ~ Last Modified January 2011