English transitivity alternation in second language acquisition : an attentional approach


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Yuxia WANG


Awarding Institution
Award date15 Feb 2011


This doctoral research investigates the acquisition of English transitivity alternation by adult Chinese EFL learners within an attentional framework. Specifically, the following research questions are addressed: i) whether instruction is effective and if yes, what instruction type is more effective in facilitating the acquisition of the target form, ii) whether the level of rule awareness as developed in different instruction types has differential effects on learning, and iii) whether aptitude correlates positively with the level of awareness and the extent of learning on the target form. These research questions are addressed in an experimental study for which 84 low- and 78 intermediate- proficiency learners were recruited. Participants at both proficiency levels were randomly assigned to a control, explicit-inductive or explicit-deductive group. Both the picture-stimulated production and grammaticality judgment tasks were conducted to assess the learning outcome in a format of pre-post-delayed tests. Learners' awareness of the target rule was categorized into three levels, namely the level of non-reporting, noticing and understanding, based on their responses to a post-exposure questionnaire. Meanwhile, learners' individual differences in aptitude were measured in two subtests on grammatical sensitivity and language analysis respectively. Analyses of the quantitative results revealed: i) form-focused instruction in both explicit groups proved to be more effective than the control group in acquiring English transitivity alternation; ii) the explicit-inductive and explicit-deductive instruction had differential learning effects for the intermediate learners, but not for the low-proficiency ones; iii) the results concerning the relationship between awareness and instruction type suggested that learners (both low and intermediate) engaged in more explicit learning conditions developed higher levels of awareness; iv) awareness at the level of noticing was sufficient to bring more learning for learners at both the low and intermediate proficiency levels; awareness at the level of understanding seemed to have more beneficial results only for learners at the intermediate level, but not for those at the low level; v) aptitude subtests on grammatical sensitivity and language analysis indicated that aptitude emphasized certain language learning abilities, i.e., aptitude was influenced by the learners' proficiency level but still differed from it; and vi) for both proficiency levels, significant correlations between learning gains in the receptive and productive tests and scores of aptitude subtests were only found for participants in the explicit-inductive groups, but not in the control or explicit-deductive groups. Pedagogical implications and suggestions for future research were also discussed. The findings suggest that the acquisition of English transitivity alternation follows as a consequence of the cognitive processing of language input, which is induced by the nature of task requirements in different learning conditions and influenced by individual differences in aptitude and learners' readiness as indicated in their prior language proficiency levels. Therefore, the effects on L2 acquisition of English transitivity alternation should be considered as a complicated interaction of a number of variables, including the nature of the target form, task requirements of learning activities, explicitness of L2 input, learners' individual differences in aptitude as well as their proficiency levels. In other words, the level of attention/awareness depends upon the nature of target linguistic form, the nature of instruction and learners' individual differences.

    Research areas

  • Second language acquisition, Chinese speakers, English language, Study and teaching, Transitivity