On Fossilisation – #ELTchat Summary 11/09/2013

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On Fossilisation – #ELTchat Summary 11/09/2013

This is a summary of the second chat on Wednesday 11th September.  The full title of the chat was:

How can we tell if fossilization has set in and how do we prevent it or get out of such a state? 

it was contributed by Andrea Wade – @worldteacher and first appeared on her blog here – we are reproducing it with her kind permission.

Fossilisation – an #eltchat summary



fossil 3The chat was expertly moderated, as ever, by @Marisa_C, @Shaunwilden and @theteacherjames.  There were very few participants in the chat and this was definitely the shortest transcript I’ve ever had to summarise (only five pages!).  Let’s think of it as quality over quantity and perhaps this summary can provoke further discussion on the #eltchat Facebook page.

The suggestion for the topic was prompted by Scott Thornbury’s new blog, The (de-) fozzilization diaries, where he discusses his problems with acquiring Spanish as a second language.  I re-produce a definition of fossilisation from Scott’s blog here:

Selinker (1972) noted that most L2 learners fail to reach target-language competence. That is, they stop learning while their internalized rule system contains rules different from those of the target system. This is referred to as ‘fossilization’. It can also be viewed as a cognitive process, whereby new learning is blocked by existing learning. It remains a controversial construct with some researchers arguing that there is never a complete cessation of learning.


(Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 963)
@Shaunwilden commented that it’s not just an L2 thing – he has fossilised errors in his L1 from too much exposure to students’ errors!!  I think most of us could relate to that!

What are the causes of fossilisation?

  • Poor instruction – whilst poor teaching can not generally be blamed for fossilisation, and is clearly not the only cause, in my context in Vietnam where there is a very non-communicative approach to language learning, it was certainly a major factor.  Students came to university having had 10+ years of poor teaching and had errors so fossilised that they were very difficult to correct.
  • Students reach a stumbling block in their interlanguage.
  • Lack of exposure to authentic English – this is a particular cause of fossilised pronunciation errors.
  • When students feel they can be understood, they stop learning.
  • Lack of student motivation.

How do we know fossilisation has set in?

  • @Shaunwilden suggested that, as teachers, we instinctively know.
  • @theteacherjames said that he looks for inappropriate errors for the level – confusing he and she or unvoiced word endings, for example.
  • For me, it’s when usual error correction is totally ineffective.

Does fossilisation matter?

The consensus here was that if it prevents effective communication, then it does matter; otherwise, perhaps not.


How do we get out of the fossilisation stage?

fossil 2As @naomishema pointed out, it’s much more difficult to ‘unlearn’ something than it is to learn something new.  Students often realise their mistake immediately after they make it, but they still make it because it’s so ingrained.  They can be aware of their own fossilisation, but unable to self-correct or fix the errors.  So, how can teachers help:

  • Talk about the problem openly and honestly.
  • Be strict with your students (in a nice way!) – via @theteacherjames.
  • Drill your students, especially if the errors are with pronunciation.
  • Display ‘Our favourite errors’ posters in the classroom – these should be created by the students with some teacher input if they don’t recognise all their errors.  @Marisa_C suggested using post-it notes which could then be removed when the error was fixed.
  • Encourage peer correction.
  • Record activities and play them back a couple of months later to track progress and uncover fossilised errors.
  • Make a checklist of common errors and have some students monitor and keep count of how many times they are made in order to raise awareness.
  • Use a writing correction code to encourage students to find their own errors.
  • Have students keep a portfolio of their work which can then be used in a one-to-one tutorial.

So there you have it, a short but sweet #eltchat which I sincerely hope will prompt further discussion.


Royalty free images courtesy of  www.morguefile.com 




One Response

  1. Ahmed Taguddin says:

    Seems that it was a very rich chat and thanks to all for sharing your experiences.
    Out of 10 years of experience with Arab Gulf students whether in Emirates or Saudi, I’d like to add a point on how to rectify the deepest fossilized errors specially those related to phonology. I am used to get two/three of the advanced ‘clean-of-error’ students to lead a campaign in the whole educational institute to get rid of one error in one week. The last successful campaign has helped a lot in recognizing the two sounds /p/ and /b/ correctly and around 150 students got it fixed 🙂

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