The role of input variability in foreign language construction learning: a primary school intervention

Upon finishing L2 learning at primary school, many students lack productive vocabulary knowledge, specifically regarding structures like verb-argument-constructions (e.g. [Verb] about [Noun]), indispensable for increasing communicative agency, as expected by curricula.
Across cognitive domains, increased initial input variability (the variation in our experience with different exemplars, e.g. [talk/think/rant/wonder] about [god/bicycles/dogs]) can improve generalization (i.e. [Verb] about [Noun]), and enhance learning. In controlled experiments, increased input variability proved beneficial for children’s generalization of linguistic information to novel contexts (e.g. Wonnacott et al., 2012). Such findings drove our investigation into extending the benefits of input variability to real classrooms.
Following a usage-based constructionist approach to language learning, we report on two quasi-experimental teaching intervention studies (each lasting two weeks) with two British Year 2 classes learning L2 German (age 6; 20 students/class). Both experiments comprised of a high (HV) and low (LV) input variability condition. Experiment 1 focused on 16 German ‘approach’ event verb-argument-constructions (Zum X [robbt/schleicht/rutscht/etc.] der/die/das Y; To the X [approach verb] the Y), featuring one (LV) or four different verbs (HV) in the construction’s verb slot. Post-tests indicated that children exposed to increased input variability demonstrated better generalization to novel contexts compared to controls. In experiment 2, three sets of non-adjacent dependencies were taught. The HV and LV conditions included 30 and five ‘intervener positions’, respectively. We tested the learning of non-adjacent dependencies and the ability to generalize to novel contexts (i.e. unknown interveners) in post-tests (grammaticality judgments).
Overall, our findings align with controlled experiments, suggesting that increased input variability might be beneficial to construction learning in ‘noisy’ classrooms, and potentially motivating larger interventions.
Johannes is a final-year DPhil student in Applied Linguistics at the Department of Education, University of Oxford. He holds an MSc in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition from the University of Oxford, and a Bachelor of Education in English and German Language Sciences from the University of Tübingen, Germany. He is interested in children’s foreign language learning both from a psycholinguistic and pedagogic perspective. In addition, he is interested in Experimental Pragmatics. Surprisingly, he also does stuff outside of work, so for example he enjoys cooking and is an avid footballer.
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