A comparative study of the effects of processing instruction and output-based instruction on the acquisition of Italian future tense
The present study was carried out to investigate the possible effects of two types of form-focused instruction (henceforth FFI) on the acquisition of a specific feature of the Italian verbal morphology system: namely the future tense, which has hitherto never been researched within this framework. Processing instruction was compared to a more traditional type of grammar instruction output-based. The impact of these two types of FFI was investigated on a well documented strategy (Musumeci 1989) used by second language (henceforth L2) learners when interpreting tenses. This strategy consists in giving precedence to lexical items (in this case temporal adverbs, i.e. oggi, domani) over morphological markers during learner's interpretation of tenses. In order to carry out this investigation, first year students (39 subjects) in their second semester, learning Italian at the University of Greenwich were randomly assigned to three groups. One group received processing instruction, which involved grammar explanation and comprehension practice directed at altering the way second language learners process input and make correct meaning-form connections; the other group received output-based type of instruction which consisted in an explanation of grammar rules followed by written and oral practice which was directed at altering the way L2 learners produce the target language; the third group was used as a control group and received no instruction. The groups were exposed to two consecutive days of instructional treatment and pre-tests and post-tests were carried out. The tests consisted of an aural interpretation task, a written completion text and an oral limited response production task. A delayed post-test was also administered to assess the possible effects of instruction after three weeks. Based on previous research carried out in a feature of Spanish (Cadierno 1993) verbal morphology, it was hypothesised that processing instruction would have positive effects on the accuracy with which subjects interpreted sentences in Italian (future tense vs present tense) in which temporal reference is only expressed by verb morphology. It was also hypothesized that the effects of processing instruction would be visible on the production of both the written and the oral task. A further hypothesis was that the effects of instruction would/hold over a post-test session three weeks later. Overall the statistical analyses carried out on the data supported the three hypotheses of this study. The results obtained in this research provide some evidence that processing instruction has positive effects on the acquisition of Italian verbal morphology, these effects being greater on the developing system of beginners, L2 learners, than output-based instruction. However the output-based group performed better than the control group in the interpretation task. This is an interesting finding as it was not hypothesised, but is likely to have significant implications for further research within this framework. The present study also showed that processing instruction was successful in altering the way in which learners processed the input and its effects had also an impact on the way learners produced future tense at sentence level in both a written and an oral production task. Finally, these effects were proved durable over a three week period. The results obtained in the present study have implications at two levels. At the theoretical level this study provides further support for the role that input processing plays in SLA. At the pedagogical level it demonstrates the effectiveness of processing instruction not only on an interpretation task but also on a written and oral production task. This is further evidence of the suitability of this pedagogical approach to encourage linguistic competence among L2 learners.