syntactic priming

Syntactic priming is the process that takes place when we make predictions upon hearing certain grammatical patterns which guide us to guess the string of words that are more likely to be uttered next based on our previous encounters with those patterns. Basically we are constantly building sentences based on what we hear, which are next confirmed or then reformulated. We hypothesise. We fill gaps. This is one of the reasons why listening -far from being a receptive process- is very much an active skill.

A very productive activity for any language level is to have students engaged in some “syntactiv priming” from a reading passage or the transcript of a listening extract from the textbook after it has been read or listened to and they have done some work around it.

Here is an extract from a reading passage from Sure Intermediate, Student’s Book, Helbling English. Free sample from the publisher here.

Sixto Rodriguez was an American singer-songwriter from an immigrant Mexican family. He lived in the car-making cit of Detroit. Rodríguez recorded two folk-rock albums in 1970 and 1971, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. He sang poetic songs about prejudice and injustice, and his producers thought he could be famous like Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, his albums didn’t sell very well in the USA, and he eventually gave up his musical career.

But Rodríguez was famous in another part of the world –and he didn’t know! In South Africa, he was more popular than The Rolling Stones and his albums sold 500,000 copies. For South Africans, Rodríguez was a pop music icon and his songs were an inspiration for the anti-apartheid struggle. But his fans didn’t know where he was. Many believed he was dead. And why didn’t Rodríguez know about this success? Because he didn’t receive any money from his record sales!

Now get your students into pairs. Student A will read one word at a time from the first paragraph leaving a two-second gap after a word is read for Student B to guess which word follows. This is a possible outcome bearing in mind students are already familiar with the text.

  • A: Sixto…
  • B: Rodríguez
  • A: was…
  • B: from
  • A: “no” an
  • B: American
  • A: singer
  • B: who
  • A: “no” songwriter
  • B: who
  • A: “no” from
  • B: Detroit
  • A: “no” an
  • B: err… don’t know
  • A: immigrant
  • B: family.
  • etc.

Then students change roles for the second paragraph.

A zero-preparation way to review vocabulary and grammar patterns.

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