Input Processing

Input processing (IP) is a model of second language learning, which tries to explain how input becomes intake.

IP is concerned with how learners derive intake from input regardless of the language being learned and regardless of the context (i.e., instructed, noninstructed). Intake is defined as the linguistic data actually processed from the input and held in working memory for further processing. As such, IP attempts to explain how learners get form from input and how they parse sentences during the act of comprehension while their primary attention is on meaning.

VanPatten (2002, page 757)

Bill VanPatten of Michigan State University has suggested a particular model of input processing. Its basic idea is that learners have limited processing ability, so they will only focus on certain things in the input they receive. Other things will be ignored. Only those items that were attended to can become intake and therefore acquired. The model is based around four principles:

Principle 1: Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form. In particular, learners process content words before anything else, and they prefer to get meaning from lexical items rather than grammatical items. They also prefer processing morphology that has more meaning than ones that have little meaning on their own. Take, for example, the following sentence:

We travelled to London by train yesterday.

In this sentence, two items indicate that this event happened in the past. The morpheme ‘ed’ at the end of travelled and the word ‘yesterday’

We travelled to London by train yesterday.

What VanPatten suggests is that learners are more likely to realize that the event happened in the past because of the word ‘yesterday’, so they will effectively ignore the ‘ed’ morpheme. Similarly, one of the function words in the sentence, ‘by’ is likely to be ignored because the meaning can pretty much be gathered from the content words ‘train’. But another function word, ‘to’ has more meaning attached to it because if the sentence said ‘from London’ the meaning will have changed.

We travelled to London by train yesterday.

The items in green are more likely to be processed by learners. The items in red are less likely to be processed. Therefore, the items in green are more likely to become intake than the red items.

Principle 2: For learners to process form that is not meaningful, they must be able to process meaning automatically.

Principle 3: By default, learners assign the role of  subject to the first noun phrase they encounter in a sentence. This can cause problems when learners encounter the passive voice, such as in the sentence:

The girl is kicked by the boy.

Many learners will take ‘the girl’ to be the subject because it’s at the start of the sentence. Once learners assume that ‘the girl’ is the subject, principle 1 kicks in and reinforces this misconception so that learners gloss over the words ‘is’ and ‘by’, as well as the ‘ed’ morpheme.

The girl is kicked by the boy.

Principle 4: Sentence position: learners process elements at the start of a sentence first. Learners process elements at the end of a sentence before elements in the middle. This means, for example, that learners are much more likely to pick up question words and their syntax than, say, object pronouns or the subjunctive.

The first two principles are based on the assumption that learners have limited processing capacity: they can only process a certain amount of language, so they must prioritize what is to be noticed and skip over the rest.

learners can do only so much in their working memory before attentional resources are depleted and working memory is forced to dump information to make room for more (incoming) information.

(VanPatten 2002, page 757)

VanPatten argues that a learner’s attention is:

  • limited
  • selective
  • controls access to consciousness
  • essential for learning, because only language items that are noticed can shift from working to long term memory and therefore be available for automatic processing.

The nature of communicative value, then, is important for IP: The more a form has communicative value, the more likely it is to get processed and made available in the intake data for acquisition. A form with no or consistently little communicative value is the least likely to get processed and, without help, may never get acquired.

(VanPatten 2002, page 760)

What this means is that while input is essential, it is not enough, a common thread behind a lot of SLA theory (see, for example, the Output Hypothesis). Since learners will focus on meaning and not form, teachers may need to consider how to free up the cognitive burden, so that learners are able to focus on form. This might mean pre-teaching vocabulary, repeated showings of a video, repeated tellings of a story or using content that learners are already familiar with (perhaps in their mother tongue), so that learners do not need to focus on meaning, making a great focus on form possible.

VanPatten also suggests a pedagogical response to his model of input processing, a focus on form approach that he calls Processing Instruction. What makes PI different from other focus on form activities (such as input enhancements, input flood and recasts), is that in PI, learners are explicitly told how input processing may adversely affect their acquisition of a language item.

PI determines not just what is a problem form or structure, but why it is a problem vis-à-vis one of the learning mechanisms involved in SLA.

(VanPatten 2002, page 767)


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