Thoughts for serious language learners
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Is “pause and think” worth it?

Michał B. writes:

I’ve recently started to use Your method (especially SRSing, getting a lot of input and learning to pronounce things) and since then I’ve been observing a big improvement in my comprehension. However, I still have many problems with grammar, so a week ago I decided to give “Pause and Think method” a try. When reading a book I’m trying to analyse grammar structures, collocations, word orders etc. I’m also looking up most words I don’t understand in a dictionary (since I read mostly when using public transportation I use a cell-phone dictionary). The method seems fine, but the problem is, it’s horribly time-consuming. To read a single page using this method I usually need some 15-20 minutes. During this time I could probably read 10 pages. So here’s the question: wouldn’t it be more (or similarly) beneficial to read several books (=to get much more input) instead of reading one, but more carefully?

Your message is basically error-free, so perhaps I should tell you to keep doing whatever you’re doing, and things will sort themselves out eventually. As your vocabulary and grammar knowledge increases, it will certainly take you less and less time to “pause and think” through a page, so maybe you should just give it some time.

That said, I would like to praise you for questioning your technique, rather than following it mindlessly.

Let me first say a few words about “pause and think” in general. The “pause and think” technique is based on the observation that input-only (=immersion) learning in teenagers and adults does not always lead to correct grammar. There are people who have received a lot of input (such as immigrants who have lived in an English-speaking country for over 10 years), but still make basic grammar mistakes, such as saying he like instead of he likes. Clearly, being exposed to lots of input is not enough, at least for some learners. (In other words, adults cannot learn English the same way as children.)

What is missing? What are these learners doing wrong? One idea is that they “tune out” the grammatical details. When hearing or reading a sentence, they notice only the words that are necessary to understand the meaning (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) and ignore the “grammatical details”: articles, prepositions, verb forms, collocations, spelling, etc. Why would this happen? Because people (and their brains) usually take the path of least resistance. If they can ignore the grammar and still get the meaning, then that’s what they will generally do.

If people are blind to grammatical details, then it doesn’t matter that they’re surrounded by input. Some of the grammatical information never reaches the language module in their brain. (BTW, this view is known as Noticing Hypothesis in language-acquisition research.)

“Pause and think” is a technique designed to prevent this blindness. The idea is that you should care about grammar and make yourself notice it, so that when you read:

The addition of a “sin tax” is a strong economic incentive against buying cigarettes.

you should notice that it says “the addition of a tax” and not “an addition of a tax”, and “an incentive” and not just “incentive”.

I don’t really know if “pause and think” is necessary to learn grammar well. Perhaps you could achieve similar results with careful output and/or grammar exercises. And I have no idea how much “pause and think” is optimal. Maybe it’s enough to simply fix your attention on each grammatical detail for a second. Maybe more active techniques are better – such as saying or writing the sentence from memory.

Because I have no idea, I recommend a kind of “middle ground”: some reading for content, some light P&T (noticing) and a little intensive P&T (reconstructing sentences from memory). That is what Michał and I did when we were learning English. (In case you’re wondering, we didn’t do it because we thought it was an effective technique – we were simply English nerds interested in grammatical details. When you’re interested in something, you tend to notice it.)

You are right to notice that reading with “pause and think” is much slower than reading for content. What would happen if you never used “pause and think”? If the above analysis is correct, you would keep making mistakes in grammatical details. It doesn’t matter how much input you’d get; the information would never register in your brain. On the other hand, you would get more raw input, so you might make faster progress in areas which do not require so much conscious attention, such as vocabulary.

You mention that it takes you 15-20 minutes to read a single page. My gut tells me the most time-consuming activity is looking words up in a dictionary. It must take a long time to type a word on a mobile device. Maybe you should consider looking up fewer words. If you come across a word that you wouldn’t want to use yourself (such as egregious, portly or kingfisher) and that word doesn’t stop you from understanding the general meaning of the text, then there’s really no need to use a dictionary. You might be tempted to check the pronunciation, but do you really need to know the pronunciation of every word you read?

Secondly, you should consider doing less P&T. You don’t need to analyze things that you don’t want to use in your own sentences. There’s no need to spend too much time on “colorful” language that is not used outside of books and periodicals. Alternatively, you might simply read simpler texts.

Good luck!


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Ivana

    the same thing was bothering me…tom, thanks for sharing your opinion…

  • o

    Very useful piece of advice. Thanks.

  • Radek

    Howdy Tomek !!! I am from Poland and I am going to study at an University. How can I use this method ( your). I will study in 10 months. How could I improve my English???Please, let me know. Radek

  • Brandon

    Hi Tom,

    I was wondering how many items we should add to Supermemo per day. What average worked well for you and your friends when you were in high school ?

    If the number is, for example, 20 … what happens if we encounter 20 new useful/important words or expressions before we read 10 full pages ? Do we keep reading and ignore the new words ?

    Or for example, what happens if we learn 20 new important words/expressions while watching TV. Do we not read for that day, or do we read and not add the new words to Supermemo ?

    I would really appreciate your help !

    By the way, English is my native language and I’m using your method to improve my French and Japanese.

    Merci d’avance / よろしくお願いします!

  • i

    Brandon, keep reading and adding to supermemo as much as you like but limit the number of items you review for the first time to 20-30 daily (or whatever suits you). This way you build your collection but the never-reviewed items aren’t scheduled for repetition.

  • lukas

    Use Kindle, which has a built-up dictionary, so there is no need to type anything whatsoever:) You simply use a cursor and a given definition will appear on your screen. If you need a detailed infromation, simply press ‘full description’ and it’s done. E-paper is a marvelous invention! Give it a try:)

  • Eric

    Hi Tom,

    I never call it “pause & think” during the beginning of my love and passion to learn to speak and write English but I was doing it from the start. It works for me and still doing this method. I’m also writing down words and phrases from what I read and try to use them in as much as many example sentences as I can.

    I’ve read a few of your posts/articles since I discovered your website days ago. I noticed right away your experiences in learning English as your second language is what I’m also experiencing at the moment.

    More power to you Tom and thanks for your website and blog.
    I’m your avid follower.

  • sediq

    The Pause and Think strategy is awesome _ it truly works to me!!!

    • Yuf

      I am not sure if you still visit this website sometimes. I am learning Germen and English at the same time, for some reason. It’s really hard for me to build an English sentence without mistakes. Since I learnd Germen I just lose all my “feels” about English. If you got some Ideas, can you share it with me ^ ^?

  • Abhimanyu

    Your site is superb. I’m non-native English speaker. I have throughly read all post on this site. It’s really wonderful, I have observed all thing that you mentioned as a non-native speaker.

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