Working Memory Capacity versus Grammatical Awareness in Determining Syntactic Performance

Ngoni Chipere

University of Cambridge, UK

Research into the psychology of language is often based on the assumption that, from around five years of age, native speakers of a language are fully, though only implicitly, aware of the grammar of their language. Poor syntactic performance is therefore attributed to insufficient working memory capacity rather than to insufficient grammatical awareness. The main pedagogical implication of this view is that grammatical instruction is unnecessary and that the remedy for poor syntactic performance is to enable poor comprehenders to use their limited working memory capacity more efficiently. This view was tested in three experiments. In Experiment 1, graduate native speakers of English, graduate non-native speakers of English and non-graduate native speakers of English were given a test of grammatical skill involving the comprehension of complex syntactic structures. The non-native graduates obtained the highest comprehension scores, followed by the native graduates. This result was explained in terms of differences in grammatical awareness, whereby the explicit grammatical instruction given to graduate non-natives while learning English gave them an advantage over the native speakers. In Experiment 2, post-GCSE students of high and low academic ability were tested for their comprehension and recall of complex sentences. The high academic ability students obtained higher scores in comprehension and recall whereas low academic ability students obtained poor recall scores and completely failed to comprehend the sentences. The low academic ability students were then given memory training. Although it brought about high levels of sentence retention, memory training did not improve comprehension. Instead, comprehension improved only after students were given training in comprehension. It was concluded that the initial failure to comprehend the sentences arose from insufficient grammatical awareness, rather than from insufficient memory capacity. In Experiment 3, a similar low academic ability group was given comprehension training only. Subsequently, this group understood and recalled the test sentences as well as the high academic ability students. It was concluded that the initial failure to recall the sentences was a result of poor comprehension. The general conclusion to be drawn from the experiments is that poor memory capacity was not responsible for poor syntactic and recall performance, rather, poor grammatical awareness was responsible for both poor syntactic and memory performance. The main pedagogical implication of this finding is that poor syntactic performance can be remedied by fostering grammatical awareness.