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The Natural Order Hypothesis - Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3950 words Published: 12th Apr 2017

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In 1977, Tracy Terrell, a teacher of Spanish in California, outlined “a proposal for a new philosophy of language teaching which [he] called the Natural Approach” (Terrell 1977; 1982: 121). This was an attempt to develop a language teaching proposal that incorporated the “naturalistic” principles researchers had identified in studies of second language acquisition. The Natural Approach grew out of Terrell’s experiences teaching Spanish classes. Since that time Terrell and others have experimented with implementing the Natural Approach in elementary- to advanced-level classes and with several other languages. At the same time he has joined forces with Stephen Krashen, an applied linguist at the University of Southern California, in elaborating a theoretical rationale for the Natural Approach, drawing on Krashen’s influential theory of second language acquisition. Krashen and Terrell’s combined statement of the principles and practices of the Natural Approach appeared in their book, The Natural Approach, published in 1983. Krashen and Terrell’s book contains theoretical sections prepared by Krashen that outline his views on second language acquisition (Krashen 1981; 1982), and sections on implementation and classroom procedures, prepared largely by Terrell.

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Krashen and Terrell have identified the Natural Approach with what they call “traditional” approaches to language teaching. Traditional approaches are defined as “based on the use of language in communicative situations without recourse to the native language” – and, perhaps, needless to say, without reference to grammatical analysis, grammatical drilling, or to a particular theory of grammar. Krashen and Terrell note that such “approaches have been called natural, psychological, phonetic, new, reform, direct, analytic, imitative and so forth” (Krashen and Terrell 1983: 9). The fact that the authors of the Natural Approach relate their approach to the Natural Method has led some to assume that Natural Approach and Natural Method are synonymous terms. Although the tradition is a common one, there are important differences between the Natural Approach and the older Natural Method, which it will be useful to consider at the outset.

The Natural Method is another term for what by the turn of the century had become known as the Direct Method. It is described in a report on the state of the art in language teaching commissioned by the Modern Language Association in 1901.

In its extreme form the method consisted of a series of monologues by the teacher interspersed with exchanges of question and answer between the instructor and the pupil – all in the foreign language … A great deal of pantomime accompanied the talk. With the aid of this gesticulation, by attentive listening and by dint of much repetition the learner came to associate certain acts and objects with certain combinations of the sounds and finally reached the point of reproducing the foreign words or phrases … Not until a considerable familiarity with the spoken word was attained was the scholar allowed to see the foreign language in print. The study of grammar was reserved for a still later period. (Cole 1931: 58)

The term natural, used in reference to the Direct Method, merely emphasized that the principles underlying the method were believed to conform to the principles of naturalistic language learning in young children. Similarly, the Natural Approach, as defined by Krashen and Terrell, is believed to conform to the naturalistic principles found in successful second language acquisition. Unlike the Direct Method, however, it places less emphasis on teacher monologues, direct repetition, and formal questions and answers, and less focus on accurate production of target language sentences. In the Natural Approach there is an emphasis on exposure, or input, rather than practice; optimizing emotional preparedness for learning; a prolonged period of attention to what the language learners hear before they try to produce language; and a willingness to use written and other materials as a source of comprehensible input. The emphasis on the central role of comprehension in the Natural Approach links it to other comprehension-based approaches in language teaching.


Theory of language

Krashen and Terrell see communication as the primary function of language, and since their approach focuses on teaching communicative abilities, they refer to the Natural Approach as an example of a communicative approach. The Natural Approach “is similar to other communicative approaches being developed today” (Krashen and Terrell 1983: 17). They reject earlier methods of language teaching, such as the Audiolingual Method, which viewed grammar as the central component of language. According to Krashen and Terrell, the major problem with these methods was that they were built not around “actual theories of language acquisition, but theories of something else; for example, the structure of language” (1983: 1). Unlike proponents of Communicative Language Teaching (Chapter 5), however, Krashen and Terrell give little attention to a theory of language. Indeed, a recent critic of Krashen suggests he has no theory of language at all (Gregg 1984). What Krashen and Terrell do describe about the nature of language emphasizes the primacy of meaning. The importance of the vocabulary is stressed, for example, suggesting the view that a language is essentially its lexicon and only inconsequently the grammar that determines how the lexicon is exploited to produce messages. Terrell quotes Dwight Bolinger to support this view:

The quantity of information in the lexicon far outweighs that in any other part of the language, and if there is anything to the notion of redundancy it should be easier to reconstruct a message containing just words than one containing just the syntactic relations. The significant fact is the subordinate role of grammar. The most important thing is to get the words in. (Bolinger, in Terrell 1977: 333).

Language is viewed as a vehicle for communicating meanings and messages. Hence Krashen and Terrell state that “acquisition can take place only when people understand messages in the target language (Krashen and Terrell 1983: 19). Yet despite their avowed communicative approach to language, they view language learning, as do audiolingualists, as mastery of structures by stages. “The input hypothesis states that in order for acquirers to progress to the next stage in the acquisition of the target language, they need to understand input language that includes a structure that is part of the next stage” (Krashen and Terrell 1983: 32). Krashen refers to this with the formula “I + 1” (i.e., input that contains structures slightly above the learner’s present level). We assume that Krashen means by structures something at least in the tradition of what such linguists as Leonard Bloomfield and Charles Fries meant by structures. The Natural Approach thus assumes a linguistic hierarchy of structural complexity that one masters through encounters with “input” containing structures at the “1 + 1” level.

We are left then with a view of language that consists of lexical items, structures, and messages. Obviously, there is no particular novelty in this view as such, except that messages are considered of primary importance in the Natural Approach. The lexicon for both perception and production is considered critical in the construction and interpretation of messages. Lexical items in messages arc necessarily grammatically structured, and more complex messages involve more complex grammatical structure. Although they acknowledge such grammatical structuring, Krashen and Terrell feel that grammatical structure does not require explicit analysis or attention by the language teacher, by the language learner, or in language teaching materials.

Theory of learning

Krashen and Terrell make continuing reference to the theoretical and research base claimed to underlie the Natural Approach and to the fact that the method is unique in having such a base. “It is based on an empirically grounded theory of second language acquisition, which has been supported by a large number of scientific studies in a wide variety of language acquisition and learning contexts” (Krashen and Terrell 1983: 1). The theory and research are grounded on Krashen’s views of language acquisition, which we will collectively refer to as Krashen’s language acquisition theory. Krashen’s views have been presented and discussed extensively elsewhere (e.g., Krashen 1982), so we will not try to present or critique Krashen’s arguments here. (For a detailed critical review, see Gregg 1984 and McLaughlin 1978). It is necessary, however, to present in outline form the principal tenets of the theory, since it is on these that the design and procedures in the Natural Approach are based.


The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis claims that there are two distinctive ways of developing competence in a second or foreign language. Acquisition is the “natural” way, paralleling first language development in children. Acquisition refers to an unconscious process that involves the naturalistic development of language proficiency through understanding language and through using language for meaningful communication. Learning, by contrast, refers to a process in which conscious rules about a language are developed. It results in explicit knowledge about the forms of a language and the ability to verbalize this knowledge. Formal teaching is necessary for “learning” to occur, and correction of errors helps with the development of learned rules. Learning, according to the theory, cannot lead to acquisition.


The acquired linguistic system is said to initiate utterances when we communicate in a second or foreign language. Conscious learning can function only as a monitor or editor that checks and repairs the output of the acquired system. The Monitor Hypothesis claims that we may call upon learned knowledge to correct ourselves when we communicate, hut that conscious learning (i.e., the learned system) has only this function. Three conditions limit the successful use of the monitor:

1. Time. There must be sufficient time for a learner to choose and apply a learned rule.

2. Focus on form. The language user must be focused on correctness or on the form of the output.

3. Knowledge of rules. The performer must know the rules. The monitor does best with rules that are simple in two ways. They must be simple to describe and they must not require complex movements and rearrangements.


According to the Natural Order Hypothesis, the acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predictable order. Research is said to have shown that certain grammatical structures or morphemes are acquired before others in first language acquisition of English, and a similar natural order is found in second language acquisition. Errors are signs of naturalistic developmental processes, and during acquisition (but not during learning), similar developmental errors occur in learners no matter what their mother tongue is.


The Input Hypothesis claims to explain the relationship between what the learner is exposed to of a language (the input) and language acquisition. It involves four main issues.

First, the hypothesis relates to acquisition, and not to learning.

Second, people acquire language best by understanding input that is slightly beyond their current level of competence:

An acquirer can “move” from a stage I (where I is the acquirer’s level of competence) to a stage I +1 (where I + 1 is the stage immediately following I along some natural order) by understanding language containing I + 1. (Krashen and Terrell 1983: 32)

Clues based on the situation and the context, extra linguistic information, and knowledge of the world make comprehension possible.

Third, the ability to speak fluently cannot be taught directly; rather, it “emerges” independently in time, after the acquirer has built up linguistic competence by understanding input.

Fourth, if there is a sufficient quantity of comprehensible input, I + 1 will usually be provided automatically. Comprehensible input refers to utterances that the learner understands based on the context in which they are used as well as the language in which they are phrased. When a speaker uses language so that the acquirer understands the message, the speaker “casts a net” of structure around the acquirer’s current level of competence, and this will include many instances of I + 1. Thus, input need not be finely tuned to a learner’s current level of linguistic competence, and in fact cannot be so finely tuned in a language class, where learners will be at many different levels of competence.

Just as child acquirers of a first language are provided with samples of “caretaker speech,” rough-tuned to their present level of understanding, so adult acquirers of a second language are provided with simple codes that facilitate second language comprehension. One such code is “foreigner talk,” which refers to the speech native speakers use to simplify communication with foreigners. Foreigner talk is characterized by a slower rate of speech, repetition, restating, use of Yes/No instead of Who- questions, and other changes that make messages more comprehensible to persons of limited language proficiency.


Krashen sees the learner’s emotional state or attitudes as an adjustable filter that freely passes, impedes, or blocks input necessary to acquisition. A low affective filter is desirable, since it impedes or blocks less of this necessary input. The hypothesis is built on research in second language acquisition, which has identified three kinds of affective or attitudinal variables related to second language acquisition.

1. Motivation. Learners with high motivation generally do better.

2. Self-confidence. Learners with self-confidence and a good self-image tend to be more successful.

3. Anxiety. Low personal anxiety and low classroom anxiety are more conducive to second language acquisition.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis states that acquirers with a low affective filter seek and receive more input, interact with confidence, and are more receptive to the input they receive. Anxious acquirers have a high affective filter, which prevents acquisition from taking place. It is believed that the affective filter (e.g., fear or embarrassment) rises in early adolescence, and this may account for children’s apparent superiority to older acquirers of a second language.

These five hypotheses have obvious implications for language teaching. In sum, these are:

1. As much comprehensible input as possible must be presented.

2. Whatever helps comprehension is important. Visual aids are useful, as is exposure to a wide range of vocabulary rather than study of syntactic structure.

3. The focus in the classroom should be on listening and reading; speaking should be allowed to “emerge.”

4. In order to lower the affective filter, student work should center on meaningful communication rather than on form; input should be interesting and so contribute to a relaxed classroom atmosphere.

Cognitive Theories

Psychologists and psycholinguists viewed second language learning as the acquisition of a complex cognitive skill. Some of the sub-skills involved in the language learning process are applying grammatical rules, choosing the appropriate vocabulary, following the pragmatic conventions governing the use of a specific language (McLaughlin, 1987:134). These sub-skills become automatic with practice (Posner & Snyder, 1975). During this process of automatisation, the learner organizes and restructures new information that is acquired. Through this process of restructuring the learner links new information to old information and achieves increasing degrees of mastery in the second language (McLaughlin, 1987, 1990a). This gradual mastering may follow a U-shaped curve sometimes (Lightbown, Spada, & Wallace, 1980) indicating a decline in performance as “more complex internal representations replace less complex ones” followed by an increase again as skill becomes expertise (McLaughlin, 1990b).

From the cognitivist’s point of view language acquisition is dependent “in both content and developmental sequencing on prior cognitive abilities” and language is viewed as a function of “more general nonlinguistic abilities” (Berman, 1987:4).

Evidence against the cognitivist theory is provided by Felix (1981) who describes the general cognitive skills as “useless” for language development (Felix, 1981). The only areas that cognitive development is related to language development is vocabulary and meaning, since lexical items and meaning relations are most readily related to a conceptual base (Felix, 1981).

Base in cognitive theory is also claimed by the interactivist approach to second language learning (Clahsen, 1987). The language processing model proposed by the interactivist approach “assumes an autonomous linguistic level of processing” and contains a general problem solver mechanism (GPS) that allows “direct mappings between underlying structure and surface forms, thus short-circuiting the grammatical processor” (Clahsen, 1987:105).

The language acquisition theories based on a cognitive view of language development regard language acquisition as the gradual automitization of skills through stages of restructuring and linking new information to old knowledge. However, the differences between the various cognitive models makes it impossible to construct a comprehensive cognitive theory of second language acquisition and furthermore, as Schimdt (1992) observes:

“there is little theoretical support from psychology on the common belief that the development of fluency in a second language is almost exclusively a matter of the increasingly skillful application of rules” (Schmidt, 1992:377).

The last two theories dealt with in this paper, the Multidimensional Model and the Acculturation/Pidginization Theory, refer mainly to the acquisition of a second language by adults in naturalistic environments.

In second/foreign language teacher education, humanistic theory leads to considerable innovation, with greater emphasis on co-operative development (Edge, 1992).

The basis for this change is the new respect for the teacher’s personal autonomy. The teacher educator’s role is one of supporter and facilitator, with the adoption of counselling models of intervention. An additional important factor is the recognition of the emotional dimension to learning.

Within this framework, relationships between supervisors and student teachers are emphasised in pre-service education programmes. In in-service programmes, counselling models are adapted with syllabi containing not only subject matter knowledge, but also skills for self-directed development. Moreover, self-assessment and group-work are determined where feelings, relationships and learning can be inexorably linked. Examples of second/foreign language teacher education practices adopted on a basis of humanistic principles include work by Freeman and Richards (1996), Gebhard (1999) and Woodward (1991).

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Constructivist Approach

Constructivism puts an emphasis on the ways in which individuals bring personal meaning to their world. Early researchers such as Piaget focused on the individual construction of knowledge. Bruner on the other hand, placed a greater emphasis on the interaction of the learner with curriculum materials, the teacher, and other significant factors. Similarly, Vygotsky and Feuerstein criticised Piaget’s view concerning the individual view of knowledge and suggested that, living as we do in a social world, learning occurs through interactions with other people (Williams and Burden, 1997). The author examines constructivism in relation to teacher education, from both the individual and social aspect as follows:

Social Constructivist Approach

Based on the work carried out by Vygotsky, Bruner and Feurstein, social interactionism sees the individual as born into a social world, and thus learning occurs through social interactions with other people (Dmitri, 1986). This is in contrast with the views of the individual constructivist approach expressed by Piaget and others. A claim is made that our mental representations are not only internal but also dependent on the mental representations of others and rules and restrictions that society imposes on the roles a person can adopt (McMahon, 1997).

Therefore, learning to teach is not an internally constructed process with a set of techniques and some specialist knowledge but rather a social process, involving the adoption of a social role. For teachers, this means that they selectively acquire the values and attitudes, interests, skills and knowledge of their professional group. This implies a need for teachers to assess “the relationship between their work and wider social conditions” (Roberts, 1998, p.44).

Thus, the teachers’ context is not perceived as a constraint but rather as a challenge within which appropriate methodologies need to be evaluated.

Evidently, the application of social constructivism in the field of second/foreign language teacher education reveals that social constructivism focuses on the importance of knowledge constructed within and with the help of the group. This is supplemented with teachers sharing and contrasting ideas, agreeing and disagreeing, etc. The group of teachers in question may also be widened by joining forces with other participants in the education system, in the form of a wider learning community (Gredler, 1997).

The recognition of dialogue as central to teacher learning is not new. The experiential learning cycle and the humanistic perspectives also recognise the importance of talk in learning. However, according to Roberts (1998, p.45), within a social constructivist framework, dialogue is seen as particularly valuable, in that it is collaborative, task-focused and offers teachers the chance to clarify their own personal theories and social relationships. Activities which help promote social interaction and construction include awareness raising tasks, e.g. problem-solving, which involves past experience, current beliefs and knowledge, direct personal experience in the form of microteaching and teaching practice with opportunities for reflection in and on these activities through structured observations, journal writing, etc. Within this approach, as within the other person-centred approaches, there is apparently a shift in emphasis from that of training to that of development.


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