LINGUIST List 15.890

Mon Mar 15 2004

Sum: Developmental Sequences

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Ronald Sheen, Summary of responses to query concerning "developmental sequences".

Message 1: Summary of responses to query concerning "developmental sequences".

Date: Mon, 15 Mar 2004 07:44:46 +0400
From: Ronald Sheen <>
Subject: Summary of responses to query concerning "developmental sequences".

Summary of responses to query (Linguist 15.705) concerning
"developmental sequences".

I recently requested feedback on any possible publications which would
support the reality of developmental sequences in the classroom, in
general, and Lightbown's advice to teachers to be patient while
waiting for such sequences to appear in their output, in
particular. (See the PS for the full text of my query.)

Actually, in my initial query I omitted to make clear that I was well
aware of Pienemann's work and that I was hoping to obtain references
to longitudinal or cross-sectional studies which demonstrated the
validity of Lightbown's advice as she had provided no such support,

I received four responses to my query from the following members:
Andrew Wilcox, from Thessaloniki, Andrea Osburne, from Connecticut,
and Ingo Plag, from Siegen in Germany and Hanelise Wagner Rauth, based
in Paris III.

Andrea reported on her own research ( 1996 'Final Cluster Reduction in
English L2 Speech: A Case Study of a Vietnamese Speaker' (Applied
Linguistics, 17.2:161-181) which demonstrated some apparent effect of
DS's but remarked wryly that at the rate of acquisition recorded, the
subject of the research would achieve success at the age of 84.

Both Ingo and Hanelise referred me to Pienemann's work but were unable
to provide any research supporting Lightbown's advice to teachers.

Andrew, writing as a teacher of ESL/EFL, explained that though
adopting an eclectic approach, he assumed the limited validity of DS's
but insisted on the necessity of giving them a pedagogical helping

Perhaps of greater interest is the fact on a list of thousands of
members there were only four responses none of which provided
empirical evidence to support Lightbown's advice. This would be
understandable were my inquiry to be of the type occasionally
encountered on Lists such as the now-defunct SLART where new
subscribers occasionally ask established members to do the work they
should have done themselves and are, therefore, rightly ignored or
sent packing with a flea in their ears. In this case, I had done the
necessary legwork in scouring the relevant literature and found no
convincing evidence. Further, neither Lightbown (2002) nor Spada and
Lightbown (2002) provide any such evidence even though they contend
that learners will pass naturally from auxiliary-free third person
interrogatives to correct forms. At the same time, my own
cross-sectional study covering an eight-year period demonstrated that
Quebec elementary students began in their second year of study to
produce third-person interrogatives such as "Where your friend live?"
and were still producing the same incorrect forms seven years later
when they were about to leave high school. Of course, this was a case
of strong communicative language teaching. (ie with no teaching of

Now, one would think that a well-known applied linguist's offering
advice to teachers without empirical evidence in support would be a
cause of some concern. It apparently is not. Then again, why should
it be? This is what some applied linguists have been doing ever since
the field achieved legitimacy. Of course, following their advice has
done little if anything to improve the general outcomes of teaching
foreign and second languages - but why should that concern us?

Ron Sheen
Visiting Professor,
American University of Sharjah,


Developmental sequences (DS) have come to be accepted as part of the
contemporary wisdom of applied linguistics as it applies to second and
foreign language classroom learning in a strong communicative language
teaching (SCLT) context. That is in classrooms dependent largely on
incidental learning without pedagogical guidance. This has resulted
in some well-known applied linguists' advocating that these putative
DS's be an underlying principle of classroom activity. This has
resulted in teachers' being advised to be patient while waiting for
students to pass through the various stages, presumably rather than
resorting to pedagogical intervention. However, as with a number of
aspects of SLA as applied to the classroom, this advocacy is long on
theory but extremely short on supportive empirical evidence. In fact,
to my knowledge, there are no findings derived from the necessary
longitudinal or cross-sectional studies demonstrating groups of
classroom learners passing through the various developmental stages.
There is, in fact, contrary evidence which demonstrates that following
such advice leads to fossilisation rather than development towards
accurate production.

This brings me to my question. Can anyone cite any evidence from the
literature which would support the above advice to teachers. Such
evidence would ideally, for example, provide transcriptions of
students' production at different times illustrating progress towards
greater accuracy.

To be more specific, it is suggested that though learners will at one
stage produce third person interrogatives of the type "What the dog
are playing?", they will pass on to the developmental stage where they
will produce correct forms such as "What's the boy doing?" (See Spada
and Lightbown 2002: 124-125). Unfortunately, no empirical evidence is
cited to support this claim.

Can anyone cite any published (or anecdotal, for that matter) evidence
which supports the argument that learners will pass through
developmental stages and end up producing correct third person
interrogatives (or any other grammar, for that matter)without being
taught the relevant grammar?

Just one precision is necessary here. I would suggest that for such
evidence to be in any way convincing, it needs to show groups of
students in SCLT classes passing through such stages albeit possibly
at different times.

Needless to say, this issue is of crucial importance and this, because
the past is witness to empirically unsupported advocacies resulting in
teachers and students being obliged to follow teaching options which,
having failed to deliver the goods, have been abandoned.

I will, of course, provide a summary of the resulting responses to the


Spada, N., & Lighbown, P. M. (2002). "Second Language Acquisition" In
N. Schmitt (Ed.) An Introduction to Applied Linguistics: pp 115-132)
New York: OUP.

Ron Sheen
Visiting Professor,
American University of Sharjah,

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue