Vol. 2. No. 4 R-9 June 1997
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Language Teaching and Skill Learning

Keith Johnson (1996)
Oxford: Blackwell
Pp. 198
ISBN 0-631-16877-X (paper); 0-631-16876-1 (cloth)
US $20.95 (paper); $52.95 (cloth)

Language Teaching and Skill Learning is an excellent book from a seasoned writer in the field of language learning and teaching. Johnson has not only managed to distill into a compact and readable book some valuable summaries of current thinking about second language acquisition, but has also put forward a much needed reassessment of the view of language as a skill among other skills.

In proposing a skills framework for language teaching, Johnson has placed his views within the context of cognitive approaches to language, and has garnered a wide range of evidence to back him, from Anderson (1980, 1983) to Prabhu (1987). In essence, the book is a plea for a consideration of language alongside studies of the acquisition of skills in general, including even the Suzuki method of violin teaching, "inner tennis" and other "inner" skills training such as rowing.

Johnson acknowledges that "there is more than one path to second language mastery" (p. 177), and that the end of the book is a new beginning, or ought to be. But he feels that he has pointed to a specific psycholinguistic justification for communicative language teaching in his argument.

The argument, in a nutshell, is this: Language fits the commonly accepted definition of skill within the psychology literature. It is "goal-directed, hierarchically organized, non-stereotyped behaviour. From the environment, the performer receives information along various parameters. The performer's response is selected from a large repertoire of possible responses. It must be appropriate along all the relevant parameters (hence exhibiting considerable 'combinatorial skill') and in many cases be executed speedily" (p. 44).

Johnson briefly reviews some of the evidence from the universal grammar research which argues for language-specific learning, and finds that there is not much that is "incompatible with a general learning theory account of second language by both pathways (learning and acquisition)" (p. 75).

He then considers some basic information processing concepts and concludes that both declarative ("knowing that") and procedural ("knowing how") knowledge are part of language competence (p. 82), especially the automatization of frequently used items (p. 89). It is here that the nub of his approach lies. Following work in [-1-] cognitive psychology, especially J. R. Anderson's (1980, 1983) model of learning as a process in which declarative knowledge is converted into procedural knowledge, he postulates that automatization is as crucial in language learning as in other skills, because it "frees conscious attention so that it becomes available for the high-level skills which require it, as in driving a car" (pg. 137).

However, Johnson observes that neither first language acquisition nor second language learning invariably proceed in the order declarative --> procedural, but often start from procedural, in which case, if there is no subsequent declarative encoding, second language learners are left with fossilization of erroneous language (p. 100). He therefore argues that language learning needs to absorb teaching methods which ensure that the learner processes in either or both directions: declarative --> procedural and procedural --> declarative, which he calls DECPRO and PRODEC. [1]

He devotes a substantial chapter to consideration of declarative knowledge and to issues of consciousness raising, noticing and restructuring; the form of instructions which present declarative knowledge; and whether what learners internalize is, or needs to be, the same as what is presented to them. He concludes that there are "two quite distinct roles for declarative knowledge: as the starting point for proceduralization and as a generative knowledge base" (p. 118), and that many communicative language activities which push learners to develop the latter for themselves are of attested benefit.

As a result of the foregoing argument, his model of language teaching is "ra-1," where ra stands for "required attention" and -1 indicates that "we consistently put learners in a position where they have less attention available (one unit less as it were) than they actually need to perform a task with comfort. In these terms, the desired state of automisation [sic] may be defined as the condition in which the ra needed to undertake a given skill = 0" (p. 139).

Johnson finds that he can accommodate the traditional PPP (Presentation, Practice, Produce) model of a language lesson if it is a fully operated PPP model. He claims that many traditional lessons virtually ignored the final P and that this is what propelled Prabhu (1987) and others to move to what Johnson calls _ _ P, thus abandoning any attempt to help learners to develop DEC either before or after PRO.

Communicative methodology in the form which places focus on the message and language use but does not avoid rule isolation is in fact a set of techniques for proceduralization of language. Johnson suggests that "learning theories. . .concerned with language processing. . .form the natural learning theory home" for it (p. 174). He presents numerous examples to illustrate how communicative [-2-] methods stimulate the automatization of language forms by focusing on memory, meaning and real-time processing.

My only regret about this book is that, having delved so competently into the psychology of skills learning, Johnson makes no attempt to consider the separate skills that might be posited to lie at the heart of it. He appears to be treating language as all of a piece. I am sure he does not in fact subscribe to the now abandoned unitary competence hypothesis. But it is strange to find him citing motor skills learning such as driving a car, playing tennis, and so forth, when discussing language learning in general. There is, in cognitive psychology and elsewhere, a wide literature which would have suggested the possibility of a hierarchically structured set of skills, ranging from motor to conceptual. However, to be fair, Johnson's aim was to relate his views about language as skill to current second language acquisition writing, and not to put forward in this book a full-blown cognitive account of the language skill. I would welcome a follow-up book from him which did so.

The book is elegantly written and very well arranged and cross-referenced.


[1] The book is slightly irritating in its use of capitalized acronyms, and would have benefited from a handy list, since not all are totally transparent.


Anderson, J. R. (1980). Cognitive Psychology and its Implications. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Anderson, J. R. (1983). The Architecture of Cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Prabhu, N. S. (1987). Second Language Pedagogy: A Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anita Pincas
Institute of Education, London University


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