Modifying the Teaching of Modifiers: A Lesson from Universal Grammar

  • David StringerEmail author
Part of the Educational Linguistics book series (EDUL, volume 16)


This chapter considers the implications for classroom teaching and materials development of recent research on the second language acquisition of modifiers, specifically regarding word order of prepositional modifiers (e.g., right back into the desert) and attributive adjectives (e.g., great new haircut). While word order of prepositional modifiers is generally not taught in the classroom, adjectival hierarchies in contrast are covered by most ESL grammar series, although never systematically. Universal orderings of prepositional modifiers (Stringer D, Burghardt B, Seo H-K, Wang Y-T. Sec Lang Res 27:289–311, 2011) and adjectives (Cinque G. The syntax of adjectives. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010) raise the question of whether orderings of modifiers need to be taught at all, or whether such hierarchies might be naturally manifested without explicit instruction. Results from experimentation targeting the acquisition of prepositional modifiers reveal innate knowledge of the syntax of modification and suggest that teaching materials should focus on the lexicon rather than word order in this domain. In contrast, results from experiments on acquisition of adjective order suggest that while a more general distinction (absolute vs. nonabsolute) may be universal, more fine-grained distinctions are poorly understood by learners even at advanced proficiency levels, regardless of first language background, and require the development of more effective teaching of word order, plausibly though enhanced input.


Relative Clause Word Order Proficiency Level Language Background Lexical Semantic 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research was conducted with the collaboration of colleagues in the Department of Second Language Studies as well as teachers and students in the Intensive English Program (IEP) at Indiana University. Many thanks especially to Kathleen Bardovi-­Harlig, Doreen Ewert, Michelle Fleener, Marlin Howard, and Heidi Vellenga. Thanks also to Stephanie Dickinson of the Indiana Statistical Consulting Center (ISCC) for her invaluable help with data analysis. The experimental work on modifiers was coauthored with graduate students who, in their own careers, are building bridges between formal L2 research and classroom pedagogy: Beatrix Burghardt, Jung-Eun Choi, Khanyisile Dlamini, Cleyera Martin, Hyun-Kyoung Seo, and Yi-Ting Wang.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Second Language StudiesIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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