Teacher decision-making, dynamical systems and processability theory


  • Howard Nicholas La Trobe University
  • Manfred Pienemann Paderborn University and the Linguistic Engineering Co.
  • Anke Lenzing Innsbruck University




language teaching, teacher decision making, regularities, chaos, variation


We demonstrate the possibility of a principled integration of the predictable characteristics of learner language and the unpredictability of socially embedded language use. In contrast with the claim that dynamical systems’ behaviour is universally unpredictable, we demonstrate that dynamical systems theory embraces predictability as a fundamental tenet. We refer to the utterance-oriented basis of processability theory for insights into predictions about L2 learning sequences that simultaneously embrace learner variation. We sketch empirical findings offering ways to connect variation and learner pathways. These findings provide evidence of how learner options emerge that are linked to unproductive pathways. We argue that building on these insights enables teachers to avoid the DST-inspired chaos narrative and locate specific regularities in learners’ dynamic language use. We show that interpersonal variation and intrapersonal variability can be integrated with a pedagogic perspective on predictable developmental sequences. We outline how this perspective offers nuanced support for teacher decision-making.

Author Biographies

  • Howard Nicholas, La Trobe University

    Howard Nicholas is Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. His work has included child and adult second-language acquisition in both naturalistic and instructed contexts. Together with Donna Starks he has developed the multiplicity framework for communicative repertoires.

  • Manfred Pienemann, Paderborn University and the Linguistic Engineering Co.

    Manfred Pienemann is Emeritus Professor in the Institute for English and American Studies at Paderborn University, Germany. He developed processability theory as a principled, single framework for L2 development and variation. He has elaborated its theoretical and educational implications in both naturalistic and instructed contexts across a wide array of languages.

  • Anke Lenzing, Innsbruck University

    Anke Lenzing is Professor for English language education at Innsbruck University. Her research has extended processability theory in diverse ways that include identification of the relationship among multiple constraints and extending the theory to include comprehension. Her primary empirical work draws on the instructed acquisition of English.


Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary paradigms in syllabus design Part II. Language Teaching 20(3): 157–74. https://doi.org/10.1017/s026144480000450x

Cazden, C., Cancino, H., Rosansky, E. and Schumann, J. (1975) Second Language Acquisition Sequences in Children, Adolescents and Adults. Report to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED121115

Clahsen, H., Meisel, J. and Pienemann, M. (1983) Deutsch als Zweitsprache: Der Spracherwerb Ausländischer Arbeiter. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.

Clahsen, H. and Muysken, P. (1986) The accessibility of Universal Grammar to adult and child learners: A study of the acquisition of German word order. Second Language Research 2(2): 93–119. https://doi.org/10.1177/026765838600200201

Cvetek, S. (2008) Applying chaos theory to lesson planning and delivery. European Journal of Teacher Education 31(3): 247–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/02619760802208320

de Bot, K. (2017) Complexity theory and dynamic systems theory: Same or different? In Ortega, L. and Han, Z. H. (eds.), Complexity Theory and Language Development: In Celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman 51–8. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

de Bot, K., Lowie, W. and Verspoor, M. (2007) A Dynamic Systems Theory approach to second language acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 10(1): 7–21. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1366728906002732

de Bot, K., Lowie, W., Thorne, S and Verspoor, M. (2013) Dynamic systems theory as a comprehensive theory of second language development. In Mayo, M., Mangado, M. and Adrián, M. (eds.), Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition 199–220. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Dogan, F., Capan, S. and Cigerci, F. (2020) Dilemmas in teaching English in multigrade classrooms: Classroom teachers’ perceptions on English as a foreign language course. Navitas-ROYAL (Research on Youth and Language) 14(1): 52–68.

Dörnyei, Z., MacIntyre, P. D. and Alastair, H. (eds.) (2014) Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Duff, P. (2020) Language socialization in classrooms: Findings, issues and possibilities. In Burdelski, M. and Howard, K. (eds.), Language Socialization in Classrooms: Culture, Interaction and Language Development 249–64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dyson, B. (2021) Dynamic Variation in Second Language Acquisition: A Language Processing Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. (2009) Corrective feedback and teacher development. L2 Journal 1(1): 3–18. https://doi.org/10.5070/l2.v1i1.9054

Eskildsen, S. (2012) L2 negation constructions at work. Language Learning 62(2): 335–72. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00698.x

Evans, D. R. and Larsen-Freeman, D. (2020) Bifurcations and the emergence of L2 syntactic structures in a complex dynamic system. Frontiers in Psychology 11(574603): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.574603

Feldman, D. P. (2019) Chaos and Dynamical Systems. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gass, S., Madden, C., Preston, L. and Selinker, L. (eds.) (1989a) Variation in Second Language Acquisition: Discourse and Pragmatics. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Gass, S., Madden, C., Preston, L. and Selinker, L. (eds.) (1989b) Variation in Second Language Acquisition: Psycholinguistic Issues. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Hagenfeld, K. (2019) Interfaces between second language acquisition and the common European framework of reference. PhD thesis, Paderborn University.

Hodge, B. (2003) Chaos theory: An introduction for TESOL practitioners, English Australia 21(1): 8–16.

Huebner, T. (1983) A Longitudinal Analysis of the Acquisition of English. Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers.

Hyltenstam, K. (1977) Implicational patterns in interlanguage syntax variation. Language Learning 27(2): 383–410. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1977.tb00129.x

Keßler, J. U. and Liebner, M. (2011) Diagnosing L2 development: Rapid Profile. In Pienemann, M. and Keßler, J. U. (eds.), Studying Processability Theory 133–48. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1992) Macrostrategies for the second/foreign language teacher. The Modern Language Journal 76(1): 41–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.1992.tb02577.x

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994) The postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly 28(1): 27–48. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587197

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18(2): 141–65. https://doi.org/10.1993/applin/18.2.141

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) The emergence of complexity, fluency, and accuracy in the oral and written production of five Chinese learners of English. Applied Linguistics 27(4): 590–619. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/ami029

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2009) Prediction or retrodiction? The coming together of research and teaching. In Christen, M., Losey, K., Pasquale, M., Bogart, P. and Anderson, R. (eds.), ‘Spotlight on Re-search: A New Beginning’: Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Conference 5–16. MITESOL Proceedings. Book 5. http://commons.emich.edu/mitesol/5

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2010) Not so fast: A discussion of L2 morpheme processing and acquisition. Language Learning 60(1): 221–30. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00556.x

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2012) Complex, dynamic systems: A new transdisciplinary theme for applied linguistics? Language Teaching 45(2): 202–14. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0261444811000061

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2017) Complexity theory: The lessons continue. In Ortega, L. and Han, Z. H. (eds.), Complexity Theory and Language Development: In Celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman 11–50. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2020) Epilogue. In Lowie, W., Michel, M., Rousse-Malpat, A., Keijzer, M. and Steinkrauss, R. (eds.), Usage-Based Dynamics in Second Language Development: In Celebration of Marjolijn Verspoor 295–300. Bristol: Channel View Publications.

Lenzing, A. (2013) The Development of the Grammatical System in Early Second Language Acquisition: The Multiple Constraints Hypothesis. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Lenzing, A. (2015) Exploring regularities and dynamic systems in L2 development. Language Learning 65(1): 89–122. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12092

Lenzing, A. (2021) The Production-Comprehension Interface in Second Language Acquisition: An Integrated Encoding–Decoding Model. London: Bloomsbury.

Lenzing, A., Nicholas, H. and Roos, J. (2019) Widening Contexts for Processability Theory: Theories and Issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lenzing, A., Pienemann, M. and Nicholas, H. (2023) Lost in translation? On some key features of dynamical systems theorizing invoked in SLA research. In Kersten, K. and Winsler, A. (eds.), Understanding Variability in Second Language Acquisition, Bilingualism and Cognition 39–79. London: Routledge.

Lightbown, P. (1985) Great expectations: Second language acquisition research and classroom teaching. Applied Linguistics 6(2): 173–89. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/6.2.173

Lightbown, P. (2000) Anniversary article. Classroom SLA research and second language teaching. Applied Linguistics 21(4): 431–62. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/21.4.431

Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (1990) Focus-on-form and corrective feedback in communicative language teaching. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12(4): 429–28. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0272263100009517

Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (2021) How Languages Are Learned (5th edn) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. (1990) The least a second language acquisition theory needs to explain. TESOL Quarterly 24(4): 649–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/3586253

Lowie, W. and Verspoor, M. (2015) Variability and variation in second language acquisition orders: A dynamic reevaluation. Language Learning 65(1): 63–88. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12093

Lowie, W. and Verspoor, M. (2019) Individual differences and the ergodicity problem. Language Learning, 69(S1): 184–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12324

Mackey, A. (1994) Targeting morpho-syntax in children’s ESL: An empirical study of the use of interactive goal-based tasks. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 10(1): 67–89.

Mercer, S. (2018) Psychology for language learning: Spare a thought for the teacher. Language Teaching 51(4): 504–25. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0261444817000258

Meisel, J. (1991) Principles of Universal Grammar and strategies of language learning: Some similarities and differences between first and second language acquisition. In Eubank, L. (ed.) Point Counterpoint: Universal Grammar in the Second Language 231–76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Meisel, J., Clahsen, H. and Pienemann, M. (1980) On determining developmental stages in natural second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 3(2): 109–35. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0272263100004137

Mickan, P. and Wallace, I. (eds.) (2020) The Routledge Handbook of Language Education Curriculum Design. New York and London: Routledge.

Mitchell, M. (2009) Complexity. A Guided Tour. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nicholas, H. (1985a) Learner variation and the teachability hypothesis. In Hyltenstam, K. and Pienemann, M. (eds.), Modelling and Assessing Second Language Acquisition 177–95. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Nicholas, H. (1985b) Individual differences in interlanguage use. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 8(1): 70–86. https://doi.org/10.1075/aral.8.1.05nic

Nicholas, H. (1987) A comparative study of the acquisition of German as a first and as a second language. PhD thesis, Monash University. https://monash.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/MON:au_everything:catau21186631810001751

Nicholas, H. and Starks, D. (2014) Language Education and Applied Linguistics: Bridging the Two Fields. London: Routledge.

Nicholas, H. and Starks, D. (2019) Using the multiplicity framework to reposition and reframe the Hypothesis Space. In Lenzing, A., Nicholas, H. and Roos, J. (eds.), Widening Contexts for Processability Theory: Theories and Issues 157–83. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Perdue, C. (ed.) (1993) Adult Language Acquisition: Cross-Linguistics Perspectives, Volume II: The Results. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pienemann, M. (1984) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 6(2): 186–214. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0272263100005015

Pienemann, M. (1998) Language Processing and Second Language Development: Processability Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pienemann, M. (ed.) (2005) Cross-Linguistic Aspects of Processability Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pienemann, M. (2011) Developmental schedules. In Pienemann, M. and Keßler, J. U. (eds.), Studying Processability Theory 3–11. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pienemann, M. (2015) An outline of Processability Theory and its relationship to other approaches to SLA. Language Learning 65(1): 123–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12095

Pienemann, M., Lanze, F., Nicholas, H. and Lenzing A. (2022) Stabilization: A dynamic account. In Benati, A. and Schwieter, J. (eds.), Second Language Acquisition As Shaped by the Scholarly Legacy of Michael Long. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pienemann, M. and Lenzing, A. (2020) Processability Theory. In VanPatten, B., Keating, G. and Wulff, S. (eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction (3rd edn) 162–91. New York: Routledge.

Pienemann, M., Lenzing, A. and Nicholas, H. (in prep.) Can dynamic systems theory explain SLA? Unpublished manuscript, University of Paderborn, Germany

Robertson, M., Macdonald, S., Starks, D. and Nicholas, H. (2018) Enabling change in EFL teachers’ ideologies about grammar and grammar teaching through alternative pedagogies. System 72(2018): 75–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2017.11.002

Roos, J. (2019) Exploiting the potential of tasks for targeted language learning in the EFL classroom. In Lenzing, A., Nicholas, H. and Roos, J. (2019) Widening Contexts for Processability Theory: Theories and Issues 285–300. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Rosmawati, R. (2014) Second language developmental dynamics: How dynamic systems theory accounts for Issues in second language learning. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist 31(1): 66–80. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2013.22

Sparks, R. (2009) If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else: The case of ‘Foreign language learning disability’. Foreign Language Annals 42(1): 7–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1944-9720.2009.01005.x

Singh, K. (2019) Introduction to Agent-Based Modelling. In Data Science. https://dimensionless.in/introduction-to-agent-based-modelling/

Tang, F. and Calafato, R. (2021) Multilingual, bilingual, and monolingual Arabic teachers’ development of learner self-regulation and language awareness in the Emirates. Foreign Language Annals, 2021(54): 233–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12515

Thorne, S., Hellermann, J. and Jakonen, T. (2021) Rewilding language education: Emergent assemblages and entangled actions. The Modern Language Journal, 105(S1): 106–25. https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12687

van Dijk, Verspoor and Lowie (2011) Variability and DST. In Verspoor, M., de Bot, K. and Lowie, W. (eds.), A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development: Methods and Techniques 55–84. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

VanPatten, B., Williams, J., Keating, G. and Wulff, S. (2020a) Introduction: The nature of theories. In In VanPatten, B., Keating, G. and Wulff, S. (eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction (3rd edn) 1–18. New York: Routledge.

VanPatten, B., Keating, G. and Wulff, S. (2020b) Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction (3rd edn). New York: Routledge.

Verspoor, M. (2017) Complex dynamic systems theory and L2 pedagogy: Lessons to be learned. In Ortega, L. and Han, Z. (eds.), Complexity Theory and Language Development: In Celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman 143–62. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Verspoor, M., de Bot, K. and Lowie, W. (eds.) (2011) A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development: Methods and Techniques. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Verspoor, M., Lowie, W., Chan, H. and Vahtrick, L. (2017) Linguistic complexity in second language development: Variability and variation at advanced stages. Recherches en didactique des langues et des cultures: Les cahiers de l’Acedle 14(1). http://journals.openedition.org/rdlc/1450

Verspoor, M. and Nguyen, R. (2015) A dynamic usage-based approach to second language teaching. In Cadierno, T. and Eskildsen, S. (eds.), Usage-Based Perspectives on Second Language Learning 305–28. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Walter, D. and van Compernolle, R. (2017) Teaching German declension as meaning: A concept-based approach. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 11(1): 68–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/17501229.2015.1041961

Wilkins, D. (1981) Notional syllabuses revisited. Applied Linguistics 2(1): 83–9. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/II.1.90

Zhang, X. and Lantolf, J. (2015) Natural or artificial: Is the route of L2 development teachable. Language Learning 65(1): 152–80. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12094



How to Cite

Nicholas, H., Pienemann, M., & Lenzing, A. (2022). Teacher decision-making, dynamical systems and processability theory. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 6(2), 219–247. https://doi.org/10.1558/isla.21617