<b> Forum for the discussion of assessment and testing of ESL/EFL students </b>

Moderators: Dimitris, maneki neko2, Lorikeet, Enrico Palazzo, superpeach, cecil2, Mr. Kalgukshi2

Posts: 1
Joined: Fri Mar 07, 2003 10:26 am
Location: Helsinki, Finland


Post by Maurice » Fri Mar 07, 2003 10:34 am

I have been looking for any PRACTICAL methods for dealing with 'fossilization.' I am already aware of most of the theory behind it, but I have not come across any activities that try to deal with it. It seems like most linguists seem to think adults with fossilization problems can't be helped. Any suggestions?



Posts: 274
Joined: Thu Jan 16, 2003 1:58 am

Post by Roger » Sun Mar 09, 2003 1:44 am

I have never read any literature about 'fossilisation', but I do encounter this phenomenon daily in my job.
What's to do?
It is a phenomenon of the learner not being aware of how different their English (or any SL) is. In my view, they must first of all learn to identify their own fossilised pronunciation and what distinguishes it from standard English.
My advice to Chinese speakers of English is to read aloud a well-rehearsed text and to tape-record it and to listen to it later.
I also they need to speak the language with each other, in order to become aware of how CHinese mispronounce English, so as to be able to appreciate a native English speaker's English.

Of course, ideally some changes to how English is being taught in China would take care of many problems we encounter here.
For instance chorussing seems to be a major contributing factor to fossilisation!
Also the habit of Chinese to read aloud for mere oral practice seems to be rather counterproductive - students often don't know how to pronounce in the first place. They don't learn to seek phonetic information from dictionaries either - they simply ask a teacher to say things aloud.

Posts: 23
Joined: Sun Feb 23, 2003 10:23 pm

Post by noonlite » Tue Mar 11, 2003 11:33 pm

Hello Maurice:

I agree with Roger that it is important to help students become aware of their mistakes and the places where their language may have fossilzed. They will never be able to change set learned patterns until they know what it is that they must change.

Awareness, however, is limited by time. What I mean is that one is generally aware of any linguistic thing for a short period of time after which that awareness slips into the background of unconsciousness. The typical scenarios is like this. The student makes a mistake. After the mistake occurs it may or may not be corrected or brought to the students attention. If it is brought to their attention, they generally recognize it, see that it is wrong, and vow to not repeat that mistake. A few minutes later, their conscious awareness of the mistake disappears. Later they use the same grammar and make the same mistake. Sound familiar?

The problem here is that any awareness of the mistake always comes after the fact -sometimes well after- if at all. In my experience students with fossilized grammar or pronunciation will readily notice and correct their own mistakes if you record them as they speak and then write them on the board to show them. This is a step toward awareness.

The real key to solving this problem, however, rests in creating awareness before the fact. Actual success occurs when a student can be aware as he or she is speaking. When awareness exists in the present moment, immediate self correction is possible, and finally, after enough self correction, the fossil will be broken and a new linguistic habit will have been born.

Here are some key questions the answers to which will point anyone in the right direction for getting this to occur.

What triggers awareness and how can it be nurtured and maintained?

Can students be taught to control their awareness? If so, how?

Can a teacher bring awareness to a student in any given present moment? If so how?

What can a teacher do to close the gap between after the fact recognition and in the moment awareness?

Tyr answering these and see where it leads you.

Posts: 274
Joined: Thu Jan 16, 2003 1:58 am

Post by Roger » Wed Mar 12, 2003 2:31 am

Keen observations, moonlight!
I can only say what I have observed in Chinese classrooms, and here, unfortunately, neither Chinese teachers nor their students ever learn to become aware of faulty speech patterns! The prime reason is that the "communitarian" approach to teaching instills in the individual learner no such concept as awareness or responsibility for one's own progress.
Chinese teachers instruct their students on every word rather than on sentence structure and how these sentences relate to what they intend to communicate. Thus, many grammar mistakes get slipped in and stay forever such as zero control on SVA (third person subject + verb in the present tense), or as banal a thing as the difference between he and she.

We must also take into account the fact that Chinese learn not so much English but how to translate it or into it. Every dialogue with one of them is a cumbersome mental process involving two languages, one of which they master insufficiently.

I have for years been defending WRITING and DICTATION (not of single words but of entire stories) as a remedy to this problem, so that CHinese minds get drilled, albeit passively, in the perfect use of English. As they write, they have more time to reflect on how English transforms ideas into language. And, by writing they may or may not jot down exactly what they hear - and adopt better grammar (SVA, tenses, prepositions).

Whenever I train new students in writing a story that I read aloud (in simplified English, suing a vocabulary of 1800 words!), I note that they do understand once the story takes shape before their eyes, whereas mere aural production seldom gets good results. Another observation I have made over time is that they learn to write faster. The first dictation may take one hour, including the rereading and comparing of how words are spelt; by the 5th or sixth time, we usually are down to about 25 minutes for a similarly-long story of some 200 words.

But this approach takes staying power on all sides - you must insist that they "obey" you in their very own interest!

Posts: 274
Joined: Thu Jan 16, 2003 1:58 am

Post by Roger » Wed Mar 12, 2003 4:51 am

Apologies to noonlite!
I need to clean my glasses...

Posts: 1195
Joined: Thu Jan 16, 2003 6:33 pm
Location: Aguanga, California (near San Diego)

Post by LarryLatham » Fri Mar 14, 2003 5:25 pm

Agreed that Noonlight's observations about the importance of awareness are keen. And since he (she) also states that 'after the fact' awareness seems to be short-lived, one is forced to seriously wonder whether teacher correction is of any value. I have, for some time, doubted that it is useful. Somehow, if we teachers can devise a way to make students more personally, individually, internally aware of specific differences between their speech and that of native speakers, it seems to me that would be many times more effective than teacher correction. Perhaps that is one reason why very young learners of language are so much better at it. They make much of really listening to (their parents, mostly, but their playmates too) and correcting themselves when they detect differences. Older students do not listen as well. Perhaps that is one reason why "fossilization" is so much of a problem.

Larry Latham

will mcculloch
Posts: 40
Joined: Wed May 07, 2003 2:34 pm


Post by will mcculloch » Thu Jun 26, 2003 4:32 pm


Maurice's post deals with one of the biggest problems connected to language learning.... and asks for PRACTICAL methods of dealing with "fossilization".....

More important , maybe, is to find practical methods of not creating it in the first place. The best way to give up smoking is not to start etc etc.

Here are a few thoughts/questions........

1. How do children acquire/learn L1 ?
2. What are their advantages / disadvantages ?
3. How do adults acquire/learn L2 ?
4. What are their advantages / disadvantages?
5. What is the major cause of "fossilized" errors among L2 learners?
6. How do children begin to understand and imitate correct grammatical structures and sounds when acquiring/learning L1?
7. How is vocabulary acquired/learned and built upon by L1 learners?
8. By L2 learners? ( 6 & 7)
9. At what stage do L1 learners begin to tackle the very important task of refining their imperfect appreciation of grammar?
10. How capable are they of absorbing and adapting to those structures at that stage?
11. How long does it then take to remove their errors and create good natural habits? (compare L2 learners)
12. How much exposure to vocabulary and simple, grammatically correct sentences have L1/L2 learners had prior to learning any grammar at all?
13. How much exposure have L1/L2 learners had to self-generated, visible mistakes through grammar exercises at this stage?
14. What is the major cause of "fossilized" errors among L2 learners? ( a repeat of Qn 5 )

My basic personal view is that most grammatical "fossilization" among L2 learners is created by a mixture of

* too many grammar topics being taught too much too soon.
* too many grammar exercises being attempted too soon.
* too many new words being learned by translation rather than by use.

I'll probably have to defend this view - it's not exactly an endorsement of current teaching practices! But.....

...where does repeated exposure to incorrect grammar come from?????
...where are bad habits born?????
...why not encourage more exposure to correct grammar at early stages?
...and focus more on vocabulary, understanding and communication??
...until the learner is more confident and capable??
...and motivated to learn correct grammatical structures??

This (to me) seems to be a much more natural, positive and communicative approach - and much closer to the experiences of L1 learners. Adult learners of L2 do suffer the natural disadvantages of "interference", time pressure, lack of exposure etc - but they also have other advantages (such as writing and organization skills) to counter them.

Fossilization ? Let's focus on trying to prevent (or minimise) it in the future - rather than taking on the very difficult task of trying to cure the disease once it's taken a firm root.

Grammar, I feel, can (and should) be dealt with quicker and better at a later stage of development (as with L1 children).How many times do you hear parents explaining (for example) the difference between adverbs and adjectives to their communicative 6 year old children??? and then testing them??? helping them to create mistakes???? and negatively showing them how wrong they are???

Well, enough for now... Some interesting comments / observations have already been made on the topic - and hopefully some more will follow.

Thanks to Maurice for raising it.

Best Wishes etc


Posts: 1195
Joined: Thu Jan 16, 2003 6:33 pm
Location: Aguanga, California (near San Diego)


Post by LarryLatham » Thu Jun 26, 2003 11:01 pm

Hello again all,

We all ought to remember that it's not fossilization that's bad; only the fossilization of errors that we want our students to avoid. And even then, it seems to me that it's only certain errors which lead to communicative confusion that deserve our special attention.

Larry Latham

Posts: 73
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2003 12:14 am
Location: *beep* City, Japan

Post by Celeste » Fri Jun 27, 2003 1:30 am

I have to agree with Will that introducing too much grammar too early on causes a lot of learner confusion. I am always frustrated when students in upper level classes or even many non-native language teachers have difficulty with producing correct simple tense sentences. What this suggests to me is that teachers are skipping the practice and production steps of teaching and are focusing too much on the teacher centred presentation part of their lessons. Also, this tells me that testing does not test production skills, but relies heavily on multiple choice.

Many of my students who have fossilized speaking errors show improvement after doing a lot of reading and writing.

In reading- provided the teacher chooses appropriate materials- the students get a constant stream of grammatically correct input. For this I like to use graded readers like the penguin esl readers.

In writing, students can take the time to choose their words carefully, and if there is a real learning gap, the teacher can diagnose it and correct it eaasily. If there are fossilized errors in speaking that do not crop up in a students writing, then we can assume that they need more speaking practice (or even drill practice, as distasteful as that can sometimes be) to make them more comfortable with spoken English so they don't blurt out errors in flustered moments.

One thing that I really hate are integrated study textbooks that give students a smattering of language without giving proper practice time for each point. When I am forced to use such books, I supplement them heavily with my own materials. Recently, I was asked my boss if I thought that students could "learn" a 15 chapter integrated text in 10 days. I had to say that while we could do every exercise in the book, that they wouldn't "learn" much of it. Too much, too soon.

Posts: 274
Joined: Thu Jan 16, 2003 1:58 am

Post by Roger » Fri Jun 27, 2003 2:58 am

A lot of good posts, folks! I wholeheartedly agree with all these observations. I am particularly agreeable to Celeste's suggestion of using texts to help students get inured to flawless English. My opinion, really!
It stands somewhat at variance with accepted 'wisdom' in China which suffers from over-dependence on EFL teaching methodologies designed for, possibly, American classrooms! Many principals lecture you on the perceived advantages of 'total immersion', concluding the more their students speak, the more fluent they become; they do not realise that fluency may come at the expense of accuracy and functionality. The English people produce here is often not just unpalatable, it is incomprehensible.

I think we must see learners as people with individual learning abilities. A PRESCHOOLER learns in a very different way than a primary school pupil does.
Preschoolers *up to age 6) are still in the stage where they learn to conceptualise the world, acquiring mental faculties that they later need to develop. For instance, the differentiation between 'I' and 'you' is a major intellectual challenge for a young child; once it has learnt it he can go on to differentiate between "he' and 'she', 'we' and 'they', left and right, good and bad, black and white.
At this stage, children do not have the inclination nor the ability to MEMORISE the way older learners do; thus, it is more appropriate to teach them practical skills such as motor control and obeying instructions.
I am teaching at two kindergartens, and I have a wonderful time although a stressful one at times because it is a versatile teaching. My kids are now able to communicate effectively across the time divide past/present, though hardly across the divide between present and future. They have now the rudiments of simple English grammar internalised (the SVA, how to form questions, negative statements, past and present tenses).

In primary school, I think they can study grammar in a more abstract way although you have to go about it rather slow. I am not sure that I want to teach grammar there; I do think READING would help them a lot more; learning how to read is getting the feel for the language.
At secondary level, they can dissect the language in earnest, discussing its internal organs.

The hardest to teach a second language from scratch are ADULTS!
I have no insights to offer - too difficult, I guess!

Posts: 23
Joined: Sun Feb 23, 2003 10:23 pm

more on fossilization

Post by noonlite » Mon Jun 30, 2003 4:10 pm

Ive been away from a computer for while, but enjoy this thread and wonder if I can bring it back to life.

Something Larry said earlier that I like is basically whether there is any value at all in teacher correction. What I have come to realize is that there is not. Simple correction gets one no where. It just goes in one ear and out the other of the student. That is why I keep talking about awareness. The key is to create awareness, not correct. Why?

First of all, there is nothing wrong! The mistake is a blessing and a signpost that points the teacher to what needs to be done. The trick is getting the student to become aware of the mistake and guiding the student to self correction. Self correction creates awareness and causes the student to realize that she has control of her language. When a student finds the answer himself, even if the teacher helped guide him, he understands that the answer is in him and is able to take responsibility for his own learning. The more often the student is caused to become aware of a "mistake" at the moment it is made, the more of a habit self correction will become until it is immediate, and then finally occurs even before the mistake is spoken.

Guiding a student to self correction, is a special art that is not easily mastered. In a nutshell, however, it involves giving the right hints and creating a story around whatever is being worked on. A simple example of a hint could be repeating the sentence with a pause where the mistake is as a prompt for the student to correct. In many cases, however, very elaborate procedures must be gone through to get where you want the student to go. This evening, for example, I tried to get a student to remember the meaning of insecure. After describing the meaning, he knew the word, but couldn't remember it. "Its related to safe" "What do we call the guys at the front gate who keep the building safe?" "Not just guards, but ---guards." "Yes, now what's the opposite of sucurity?" "Not un, but..." "You got it! Good job Yoshiaki!" I may even clap at this point and often other students do too if they are present. They know the routine already and don't interrupt this process of becoming aware because it works and I do it with them as well. If he's Japanese, as this man is, he will often apologize for "not remembering" and I will simply smile and say, "but look you remembered."

Once the correction is done, get the student to say the entire sentence again correctly if it's a sentence or to answer the original question of the vocabulary word that was asked as in Yoshiaki's case. Before the class ends, at some spontaneous moment while transitioning perhaps, ask the student to say the whole sentence (vocab question/answer) again. Keep track of that sentence write it down. Ask again the next class...and the next class. Is the student answering immediately without hesitation? You have broken the fossil. Wait a few classes before bringing that one up again, you are now so busy with other things that you're causing the student to become aware of, however, that there's more than enough to do.

This technique is most effective when used early on -as another poster has commented, stop the fossilization before it starts. What I consider true fosslization, however, can be handled in the same fashion. It is best to start with a few of the most glaring errors and stay highly focussed. There is no fossil great enough to withstand the conscious attention of a determined student.

User avatar
Posts: 1374
Joined: Sun May 18, 2003 4:14 am
Location: San Francisco, California

Post by Lorikeet » Mon Jun 30, 2003 6:09 pm

I'm not sure I have the same definition of "fossilization" in my head as the rest of you, but as a teacher of ESL to adults in California, I find what I consider "fossilization" most often in students who have lived in this area for many years (sometimes as many as 30!) and never had the chance to go to school because of their work and home life schedules. They learned to speak English well enough to get by on their jobs and in their life, but their speech is full of grammatical errors. They are the most difficult ones to help. In the end, I think it depends on what their motivation is. A motivated student can become aware of his/her errors and fix them. Most, however, are content to keep their errors as long as they are understood (eventually :wink: ,)

will mcculloch
Posts: 40
Joined: Wed May 07, 2003 2:34 pm


Post by will mcculloch » Wed Jul 02, 2003 12:20 pm

Hi....just a few thoughts on the last few contributions

Lorikeet "Most, however, are content to keep their errors as long as they are understood" ....yes, I'm sure that this is right. Not everyone wants to put effort into perfecting language skills - they have other priorities - family, job, money, survival etc. These people are hard to help but only because their motivation (as you rightly point out) lies elsewhere. Trying to overcome fossilized errors is relatively unimportant when there is a family that needs feeding (for example).

Noonlite "Guiding a student to self correction, is a special art that is not easily mastered".....well put!

"It is best to start with a few of the most glaring errors and stay highly focussed"....yes, this seems like a very good strategy. I'm sure that a lot of confusion and errors are generated by approaches that encourage too much grammar learning too soon.... and that the best hope of curing them is one at a time. When "correcting" essays for example I think that it is best to just find the worst mistake and deal with that in depth. Get rid of it....improve step by step..... Teachers who over-correct with lots of red lines etc tend to create some degree of panic, confusion and negativity in their students.....Whether or not this approach corrects mistakes - or simply fosters more fossilization - is highly debatable.

Roger "they do not realise that fluency may come at the expense of accuracy and functionality".....or that inaccurate fossilized fluency is partly a bi-product of learning lists of vocabulary? combined with too much grammar too soon??

The problem with a "total immersion" policy that encourages students to speak as much as possible as soon as that it actively encourages fossilization....You could argue that it's not "immersion" at all....and that perhaps it's better to speak a little less in the early stages - and concentrate more on reading and listening to correct structures.... and writing down new words, investigating correct usage, practising etc. A little early conversation is great - but the "total immersion" approach that you describe in China seems to be a case of trying to run before you can walk.......Result?...probably falling over...again and again.

you also say "The hardest to teach a second language from scratch are ADULTS!" ...but I'd have to disagree with you maybe another time!

Celeste "Many of my students who have fossilized speaking errors show improvement after doing a lot of reading and writing".....and listening too I hope.........This is immersion...and will, I think, work wonders...almost every time.
As you say... the need is for appropriate materials at each stage....and the penguin readers are good examples of this.

Larry...YES...we should concentrate on fossilizing some good habits early on.....and also not get too obsessed with trying to correct each and every error that occurs. If students build on their ever increasing vocabulary in a sensible, guided communicative manner.... almost all "errors" will get naturally ironed out over time, without the need for a great deal of direct grammar teaching ( although some is good...and exercises help... in moderation).

Well, more than enough....but I hope this thread goes's important.

Best Wishes etc


Posts: 160
Joined: Fri Jan 17, 2003 7:52 am
Location: France

Post by strider » Thu Jul 03, 2003 10:33 am

Hello everyone

Thanks for an interesting discussion !

Noonlite, I'm afraid I disagree with your comment that " Simple correction gets one no where."

When I started learning French (a process that will never finish, I fear :? ) I always confused the words for 'minute' and 'midnight'. Eventually, a teacher corrected me, by simply explaining what I had just said -"I'll see you in 5 midnights" !

If the fossilization is a block to clear communication, correction surely IS important.

Posts: 261
Joined: Tue Jan 21, 2003 11:59 am
Location: Germany

Post by sita » Fri Jul 04, 2003 2:50 am

Yeah guys thanks for an interesting discussion.

I always feel:

English is for life not for the classroom :!:

I do not interrupt people in class
I jot down typical mistakes and make handouts

Thus nobody feels humiliated and every single student profits!


Post Reply