THE MAGICAL NUMBER SEVEN

It is always exciting to "discover" something and then get the "giggly letdown," when you find out that someone has "been there and done that." It's not always great for the ego, but it's a good part of the discovery process. As I've said before, "If something is true, you don't have to believe it."

I've told you that I'm working on the "English as-a-Second Language Criteria Performance Measure." I have selected 20 criteria of language performance skills in the ESL classroom, that I feel indicate that the student is gaining skills that will, among other things, lead to communication competence in the new language.

When I started, my first three criteria measured short-term retention and repetition of syllables, with no effort at presenting spoken material that is, or isn't, understood. In plain language, could these students imitate a new language with new features?

I had found over the years that students, who could briefly retain and imitate short utterances, with a high percentage of accuracy, were going to be winners, regardless of their current proficiency in the target language. My original design included sentences in variable phonological design, covering the full range of American English sounds in initial, medial and final positions. I decided that series of five, seven and eight syllable exercises would be rational in the listening, brief retention and imitation contexts. I designed the exercises for my ESLCPM Instructor Manual and tried them out on two groups of adult ESL learners.

What happened? I found that all of the students, with the exception of two who had obvious language acquisition problems, were able to repeat unfamiliar five-syllable utterances without difficulty. MOST of them were able to perform well with seven-syllable utterances, with somewhat varying levels of accuracy. NONE of them could comfortably handle eight-syllable utterances! Back to the old drawing board.

I had previously noticed that in dialog exercises, certain thought groups were very difficult for the students to repeat, compared to shorter thought groups. The next few times I had students do repetition work on dialogs, without looking at them, I noticed that the cutoff point for retention seemed to be around seven syllables. Thought (or breath or phonic groups) are natural groups of words within spoken sentences that can go anywhere from one to eleven syllables. In English, they are bounded by junctures and contain exactly one primary stress. I based the size of thought groups in my dialogs on how I might say something in natural speech. As soon as I cut the longer ones to seven-syllables or under, repetition worked. I had also noticed that there was NO correlation in repetition competence based on who had the highest or lowest ESL proficiency. Some of the lower level students were very competent repeaters, even though they hadn't had the time in performance-based training, to assimilate much language.

I went back to the old drawing board and cut out the eight syllable repetition exercises. Students were happier and surged onward, enjoying the more limited "parrot" exercises. This slightly changed my criteria, but that was fine. Reality is in the trenches!

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a cousin/friend in California, Dr. Bob Sansom, whose degree was in Instructional Technology. He laughed and said that my "discovery" went back a few years. I got an e-mail from him this week, referring me to a paper by George A. Miller originally published in The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, pp 81-97. I found this article through Google. It was titled, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." In it he says, "There is a clear and definite limit to the accuracy with which we can identify absolutely the magnitude of a unidimensional stimulus variable. I would propose to call this limit the SPAN OF ABSOLUTE JUDGMENT and I maintain that for unidemensional judgments this span is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of seven." He gives numerous examples including auditory and visual limits of seven, in this 18 page article. What an eye opener!

CONCLUSION: This new/old knowledge should influence ESL material design and the classroom performance of instructors. If there is a natural limit, let's remember it, respect it and utilize it, to do a better job for the most important people in our profession, the students.