Further Investigations on Lexico-Grammatical Constructions and the Conditions for Their Discovery by Second Language Learners(2/2)

Project Details


The present proposal continues a long-term investigation into lexico-grammatical constructions and the challenges they pose to second language learners. Lexico-grammatical constructions are multiword patterns that are neither frozen like formulaic expressions on the one hand (e.g., “by the way”, “believe it or not”, “as a matter of fact”), nor do they allow the open variation expected by fully productive grammar rules on the other (e.g., wh-questions; the passive construction). As such, they fall outside the scope of both dictionaries and reference grammars and escape the attention of most approaches to classroom language education. The current project investigates to what extent and under what conditions learners can become sensitive to the presence of lexico-grammatical constructions in their input as the first steps to acquiring them by learner-centered discovery rather than direct instruction. This entails investigating learners’ sensitivity to three distinctive properties of lexico-grammatical constructions encountered in context: their non-compositionality, partial productivity, and semantic selectivity. Preliminary results from this current work with 250 students in university Freshman English courses have led to the following novel hypothesis that the proposed research is designed to investigate: These three features of lexico-grammatical constructions are not simply independent properties that make these patterns difficult to learn; rather they conspire to make them discoverable by learners and to render them into informative contexts for inferring the meaning of unknown words within those patterns. These three features implicate the lexico-grammatical pattern as a whole into a reciprocal, mutually illuminating relationship with its parts (i.e., with the words in it). This has the striking consequence of enabling learners to bootstrap incrementally from a state of not understanding the non-compositional construction nor some unfamiliar word in that construction to a state of grasping the meaning of both the construction as a whole and the unknown word appearing in it. While sensitivity to this reciprocity is a key to the success of first language learners, it is largely absent in classroom second language learners. It can, however, be fostered in second language learners as impetus to uninstructed discovery learning of both words and constructions. The proposed two-year research submits this novel hypothesis to empirical investigation in the first year and then explores its implications for re-orienting language pedagogy in the second year. In the first year, the current year investigation is to be duplicated with an expanded the inventory of constructions. Further, the contexts in the first year study are to be expanded incrementally to larger stretches of discourse in less controlled settings to see if learners’ sensitivity to constructions fostered under controlled conditions transfers to novel conditions, with other unfamiliar constructions, and in larger contexts. In the second year, this expansion of context is developed further by investigating learners’ engagement with lexico-grammatical constructions both incidentally and intentionally within cycles of extensive and close reading. Over the two-year funding period and in parallel to these investigations, the next version of StringNet (5.0) will be developed to make lexico-grammatical patterns even more readily discoverable to learners and teachers.
Effective start/end date1/08/2131/07/22

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals


  • second language acquisition
  • construction grammar
  • lexico-grammatical constructions
  • data-driven language learning


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