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The Monitor Theory and Why it Matters

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

It's important to understand that there are a multitude of reasons why a person might have writing apprehension, and usually, it's not out of laziness or unwillingness. Many people might be able to identify with what's known as the "monitor." Usually, a problem that is associated with different types of writers' blocks might keep a person from beginning or continuing a piece of writing. Monitors are usually associated with multilingual learners or those who are acquiring additional languages.

So, what is a monitor?

The monitor theory of language acquisition was developed by Stephen Krashen who argues that we are not always consciously aware of the rules of certain types of language. "Instead," he says, "we have a 'feel' for correctness. Grammatical sentences 'sound' right, or 'feel' right, and errors feel wrong, even if we do not consciously know what it violated" (Krashen, 1982). The monitor is that feeling of whether something is or is not correct.

A monitor, however, is not always right. For example, take a look at this sentence: "The horse raced past the barn fell." Grammatically, this sentence is correct, but a person's monitor might not think so even if they are aware of reduced relative clauses. To further explain, "the horse raced past the barn" was used instead of something like "the horse that was raced past the barn." This results in what is known as a garden path sentence. For those who would like to test their own monitors, looking into garden path sentences might be interesting.

Applying the Monitor

For the purpose of this post, I read "Problems with Monitor Use in Second Language Composition" by Stan Jones. However, I will be using terms such as "multilingual" for accuracy. Many educators for multilingual learners might have run into the monitor in their own training or in practice without having a name for it. While writing apprehension is common in writers who are proficient or fluent in the language they are writing in, writing apprehension for those who are not writing in their native language can entail additional factors that are usually accounted for by the monitor.

Jones' piece reported on a study for which the participants were two multilingual students. One of them reportedly overused their monitor while another underused it. The person who overused their monitor spoke on fluency as their primary goal in written communication and often had questions about accepted grammatical rules. The student who underused their monitor stated that being understood is their primary goal and the rest is secondary. Both of these goals in communication are valid, in my view. Language learning is admirable however it is done, but the monitor often plays a large role.

Does the monitor make someone a better writer or does it not?

In my opinion, neither. However, what a person might react to due to the monitor can account for a person's priorities in writing. A sentence might sound wrong and it can be difficult to understand why that is sometimes. It's easier to tell what those priorities are if a word sounds wrong or if a method of punctuation might make a sentence look incorrect.

Here is the first section of the prewrite from the writer who stated they underused their monitor. There are annotations which I will explain.

"I will describe a[n] (0:04) [medical] accident that happened in my city in Brazil. (0:05)

There is many kinds of doctors in the world (0:05) {ones} those who are very dedicated to the profession and others worried about their own finan{c}cial situation. (0:04.8)" (Catrina, 1985 as cited in Jones, 1985).

The parts noted in square brackets were added. The parts in curved brackets were crossed out. The numbers in parentheses were pause times. Jones reasons that the pause times were possibly indicative of the writer trying different lexical strategies, going back to this writer's point about being understood. The question foremost in her mind could have been something like, "How do I write this so that I can express precisely what I mean?" This is a common question for many writers and by no means a new and revolutionary statement, but it's important to keep in mind that being understood comes first and whether a piece is technically correct according to the parameters of language comes second. The two might seem they are at odds, and for some, that might be the case.

Here is the first section from the prewrite from the writer who overused their monitor. The annotations are the same.

"Maybe I should describe (0:44.2) the experience (0:04.2) of this morning. (0:37)

I am surprised how difficult is to get visas from southamerican countries (0:04.4), even (0:28) being yourself a southamerican [citizen]. (0:26)" (Lianna, 1985 as cited in Jones, 1985)

Immediately noticeable are the longer pause times in between words and very short phrases. The emphasis, as opposed to Catrina's, is in being technically and stylistically correct. According to notes from her study, this writer was concerned about frequency of words and planning parts of sentences mentally in detail before writing it down.

What can we get from the results of this study?

Mostly, Jones cites differences between those who overuse their monitor and those who underuse their monitor and a need for balance. Writing, as a communicative act, should aim to be understood, but many of those misunderstandings can result from misuse of rules in language to the extent that they are understood by native speakers.

What makes this more difficult is that those rules are subject to change, even if those changes are based on the popularity of words and phrases as opposed to whether they are correctly used. As recently as 2013, linguists have traced [for example] the popularity of "going to," "have to," "need to" over words like "shall" or "ought." Here is an excellent article on the subject.

Jones notes that teachers of writing will often teach only a small fraction of the existing rules in composition. Students will internalize and retain even fewer. That is to say, more often than not, native speakers of a given language might not fully understand the ins and outs of their own language. Proficiency and fluency come with practice. Because of some of these misunderstandings, the singular "they" (another example) is sometimes a point of contention. Here is an article from the Oxford English Dictionary by Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne, that explains a history of the use of singular "they".

In sum, English is a frustrating language to learn and it's fully possible to argue that native speakers don't even know their own language. For similar reasons, it's frustrating to learn another language. So, a great way to navigate methods to improve self-expression in any language is to be aware of and manage the monitor, plan, and do your best to be aware of your personal goals in writing.

A Purposeful Exercise

A fun way to gain a better understanding of another language is through their music and media.

Click here to listen to "Caviglie Stanche" by La Municipal.

Follow along to the lyrics of the song and use your current understandings of languages you know to try and determine what this song might be saying. You might already know Italian or some popular phrases like "che sera".

After looking at a translation, try to read the lyrics as a poem as opposed to a song. How well does that translation "work" and why? What would have to be done to that translation, if anything, to make that song work in another language? How would the meaning change?

Take a close look at the way the Italian lyrics are phrased. Immediately, can you point out differences in the way that phrasing works in English or another language you know?

If you are not already fluent in Italian, try listening to a song in a language more familiar to you. If you are fluent in Italian, try seeking out a song for which the language is unfamiliar. Compare the way that you think about the two songs as a fluent speaker and as a non-fluent speaker as you listen to them.

Next week, I will be continuing with Nancy DeJoy's piece as promised. Thank you all for your feedback on my posts! As always, I would love to discuss anything that you've taken from this post, the associated exercise, and some of the texts that I have linked as resources. To do this, feel free to use the "chat" function on this website, fill out the contact form, or you can become a Purposeful Prose Member. As a member, you will be able to "like," comment on posts, and participate in my forum.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


4 Subtle Changes to English That People Hardly Notice. (2013, June 25). Mental Floss.

Baron, D. (2019, March 29). A brief history of singular ‘they’. Oxford English Dictionary.

Jones, S. (1985). Problems with monitor use in second language composing. Studies in writer's block and other composing process problems.

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1 Comment

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Aug 07, 2021

What an interesting distinction -- writing for understanding versus fluency for non-native speakers. I know that a huge determinate in teaching young children to read who are not native speakers is how well they understand their native tongue. While rules may change, I think this emphasizes the importance of understanding one's own language beyond a superficial level. Fascinating piece!

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