family relationships, shopping, sports, vacationing, and the like.
Each unit dialogue introduces pertinent vocabulary, phrases,
idioms and verbal exchanges typical for what one might experience outside the classroom, as well as the grammar structures
one might use, increasing in difficulty as the course progresses.
In the classroom proper, there is an abundance of talking and
listening, based on the verbal exchanges modeled in the unit
dialogue. A host of exercises provide for extensive practice of
the material in all four communicative areas—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Later units may contain two or three
related model dialogues, each with its own practice exercises.
Each unit concludes with assessments that measure how well
the material has been learned in the four communicative areas.
One much used exercise in a foreign language curriculum is
the substitution drill. To practice listening and speaking skills, the
instructor might pair off students and have them repeat ques-tion-rejoinder patterns while substituting different vocabulary
items. The drill bolsters both vocabulary and syntactic patterns.
Q1: Do you prefer milk or orange juice?
A1: I prefer orange juice [milk].
Q2: Do you prefer bread or croissants?
A2: I prefer croissants [bread]. etc.
This may be followed by open-ended questions, e.g.,
Construct a four-sentence dialogue between you
and a family member as you shop for groceries.
Substitution drills are also used to practice purely grammatical features, e.g., noun-article agreement.
Nous pouvons acheter des oeufs.
Tu veux du jambon?
Avez-vous manger de la soupe?
The components in these units are crafted with two key
principles in mind—repetitive exposure in varying contexts and
meaningful communication. As mentioned in Part I, the learn-
er’s exposure to language features (data) that are used repeated-
ly, but in varied contexts, is the mechanism by which the brain
implicitly discerns patterns that it then inductively generalizes
into the syntax rules of an ever-evolving grammar. Meaningful
communication is what propels this language acquisition pro-
cess. That is, the learner’s motivation to actively communicate
is what both drives repeated attempts at communication un-
til her needs and wants have been successfully conveyed, thus
honing correct language usage; and keeps her in a state of active
listening and ongoing exposure to language data, spurring more
cycles of the language acquisition process. In a programming
language learning context, though, it makes no sense to say
one can “communicate” with a computer. On the other hand, a
computer does provide immediate program output—feedback
as to how well the program is written. This ongoing cycle of
intentional interaction on the part of the learner seems to be an
effective substitute for meaningful communication, allowing for
ble 7A shows a simple if-else statement, and Tables 7B and 7C
show its logical equivalents (though the flows of control differ).
Note that the patterns in Tables 7B and 7C require that variables be initialized (with a dummy value in 7B and the default
value in 7C) to avoid compiler error—a software engineering
practice worth encouraging anyway. An introduction to
conditional execution can thus focus on one syntactic form—
cascading if-statements. The concept of if-else can now become a
refinement that can be postponed to a more advanced treatment of the subject, much like switch statements and ternary
There are several pedagogic advantages to scaffolding the
topic in this way. An introductory treatment of the topic will focus on the most important aspect of conditional execution—the
use of Boolean logic to enforce mutual exclusivity. Second, confusion due to the variety of ways that programming languages
can express the same decision-making logic will be lessened. Finally, students will only have to learn a single pattern, the form
in Table 7C, 17 which can be used in all environments, including
those where methods return values.
Aside from scaffolding, there are cognitive reasons specific to
language learning that argue for this simplification as well. When
children are learning their first/native language, the order in which
syntax features are acquired is related to their stage of development [ 6]. There is also a predictable order, related to difficulty, for
features acquired by children learning second languages [ 11], and,
it turns out, for adult second-language learners as well [ 2]. 18
In summary, this section has demonstrated that an introduction
of the topic using the simplified case of cascading if statements—
which still retains a substantial, but now much reduced, amount
of complexity—will provide students a basic, but usable, syntactic
foundation for conditional execution, which they can later supplement with more nuanced features that the language provides.
CURRICULAR STRUCTURE USING IMPLICIT
LANGUAGE TEACHING METHODS
Having found a way to simplify and scaffold instruction for conditional execution, how would one structure such a unit using
an SLA-based teaching model?
A unit in a whole language curriculum taught using a communicative pedagogic approach opens with a brief dialogue contextualized in a specific social aspect of life, such as eating out,
17 Although the code fragment in Table 7C is preferable, the stilted, but more explicit,
intermediate form in Table 7B, may have considerable explanatory value, particularly
in a side-by-side comparison to if-else-statements when they are eventually taught.
Those who would like their students to perform actions inside the if-blocks can
instead set parameter values in the blocks and follow with a single action statement
that uses those parameters.
18 An interesting aside is that the authors of these last two studies concluded that the
results were evidence for a second language acquisition process involving “creative
construction,” not “habit formation.” Creative construction, a process involving
hypothesis testing about the target language, is what is generally agreed to account
for the primary mechanism underlying implicit acquisition of first/native languages.
Interestingly, evidence of hypothesis testing in the learning of programming languages
surfaced when I observed my students making certain novel syntax errors having to do
with the direction of assignment of values to variables [ 28].