Vol. 1. No. 3 R-21 March 1995
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Review Article

Examining the Plethora of Second Language Acquisition Textbooks

The six texts reviewed here have all been published in the last three years. At least two other texts could have been considered. One is Rod Ellis (1994), The study of second language acquisition, which is over 800 pages and can truly be considered an attempt to review all the relevant research. The other is Roger Towell and Roger Hawkins (1994), Approaches to second language acquisition, which, unlike the other texts, does attempt to reconcile competing strands of research. With the exception of Towell and Hawkins, all of these texts purport to be introductions to the field of second language acquisition research for students who have little knowledge of linguistics and no knowledge of SLA or SLA methodology.

It is interesting to speculate on why so many introductory texts have appeared in such a short period of time. Perhaps the publishers perceive that the field of second language acquisition is growing so fast that there is a growing demand for such texts. That so many texts can be written about second language acquisition does indicate a certain amount of maturity in the field. All of the texts deal with certain issues: the critical period, affective factors, Krashen's Monitor Model, behaviorism, nativism, to name just a few. Two of the texts, Gass and Selinker, and Larsen-Freeman and Long, devote entire chapters to types of research in the field, and one text, Cook, provides a research summary box which outlines the goal, aspect of the language considered, the type of data analyzed, how the data was analyzed and the results. That we are able to identify major research questions and discuss with some specificity typical research designs shows that SLA research has become an coherent field of study.

The six reviews, for the most part, provide a good overview of the topics in each of the texts. With the exception of the review of Brown's third edition, the strengths and weaknesses pointed out for each text seem to be well-founded. One general point to be made about all texts is whether a glossary exists. All these texts are meant to be introductions for students who have little or no knowledge of linguistics and no knowledge of second language acquisition. For texts with such purposes and target audience, a glossary of technical terms is valuable. Brown, Cook, Larsen- Freeman and Long, and Scarcella and Oxford do not provide a glossary while Gass and Selinker, and Lightbown and Spada do.

Instead of recounting the information in each chapter, which all the reviewers do well, I will consider how each text presents research. In her review of Scarcella and Oxford, Phinney observes how little description of research details is provided in the text. As a consequence, the reader cannot understand how the results were reached. The ability of future teachers to understand how researchers have examined the process of second language acquisition [-1-] will help them understand what their own second language students are doing.

As the point of comparison for how the five texts deal with research, the morpheme studies, with special attention to Dulay and Burt (1974), will be used. The morpheme studies were a very important research paradigm in the 1970s. They are an important part of the research base Krashen cites for the Monitor Model, especially the natural order hypothesis and the acquisition/learning distinction. Unlike an earlier study, Dulay and Burt (1974) had children from two different language backgrounds, Spanish and Chinese. In this paper, they coined the expression "creative construction" to contrast with the notion that transfer from the first language is the major process involved in second language acquisition. The research made an explicit comparison of L2 acquisition to L1 acquisition. Finally, the test procedure used by Dulay and Burt, the Bilingual Syntax Measure, is a test of language proficiency that is still used in many bilingual and ESL programs.

Cook provides the most extensive discussion of the importance of the morpheme studies. He discusses the relationship of Dulay and Burt's research to Brown (1973). He makes clear that Brown was a longitudinal study of three children learning English as a first language, and that a morpheme was considered acquired when it was supplied correctly 90% of the time in obligatory contexts over several taping periods. Dulay and Burt administered the Bilingual Syntax Measure, a test composed of pictures and questions, to groups of students, and then examined the responses to see whether some of the morphemes reported in Brown were supplied in obligatory contexts. Cook presents several figures with the findings and provides lists of the morphemes and the order that was found in various studies. The discussion of criticisms of the morpheme studies runs over four pages. One of the most important observations is that the order obtained is an order of difficulty. (Only two of the morphemes reached the 90% level of supplied in obligatory context as defined by Brown). Another important criticism is that the actual sequence of morphemes found has never been explained. In other words, no one has attempted to provide a theory which explains the order obtained by any of the morpheme studies.

Gass and Selinker have the same kind of detail found in Cook. They also have several figures from Dulay and Burt (1974) and Bailey, Madden and Krashen (1974), which applied the same methodology to adults. The discussion of the problems with the morpheme studies is very similar to the discussion by Cook, with care to label the findings as accuracy orders. In the final paragraph of the section, Gass and Selinker conclude "it is not sufficient to posit an order without positing an explanation for that order" (p. 87). [-2-]

Larsen-Freeman and Long do not focus specifically on Dulay and Burt (1974), nor is their discussion as extensive as the texts just considered. They do present the proposed grouping of the morphemes suggested by Krashen in a later article. They provide the same criticisms found in the two previous texts. Larsen-Freeman and Long provide the most positive evaluative statement of the three texts considered so far:

Despite admitted limitations in some areas, the morpheme studies provide strong evidence that ILs exhibit common accuracy/acquisition orders. Contrary to what some critics have alleged, there are in our view too many studies conducted with sufficient methodological rigour showing consistent general findings for the commonalities to be ignored. (p. 92)

Unlike the texts considered so far, which have from four to eight pages devoted to the morpheme studies, Brown has approximately a page in a subsection entitled "linguistic considerations." The following is his description of the studies and the findings:

[Dulay & Burt] claimed that children learning a second language use a creative construction process, just as they do in their first language. This conclusion was supported by some massive research data collected on the acquisition order of 11 English morphemes in children learning English as a second language. Dulay and Burt found a common order of acquisition among children of several different native language backgrounds, an order very similar to that found by Roger Brown (1973) using the same morphemes but for children acquiring English as their first language. (p 65)

This reference to the morpheme studies lacks any description of the nature of the research, lacks a list of the morphemes tested, and is not precise in claiming that Dulay and Burt found a "common order of acquisition." Cook, Gass and Selinker, and Larsen-Freeman and Long listed the morphemes and were very clear that although the morpheme studies are often interpreted as finding an "order of acquisition," the research actually only showed an order of difficulty or accuracy.

In the following paragraph Brown briefly cites some of the criticisms of the studies. One criticism he does not mention is that no one has offered an explanation for the order. In this paragraph, Brown claims that for children there is less interference because of cognitive and affective reasons. Immediately following this assertion, Brown contrasts children to adults:

Adults, more cognitively secure, appear to operate from the solid foundation of the first language and thus manifest more interference. (p. 66) [-3-]

Brown provides no research for this claim. More surprising to me is the lack of a reference to the adult morpheme studies. In the same year and journal of Dulay & Burt (1974), Bailey, Madden & Krashen (1974) found a similar order of accuracy/difficulty for adults from various first languages.

Lightbown and Spada have no reference to Dulay and Burt. In a section entitled "first language acquisition," they have a brief description of Brown (1973) and list many of the morphemes studied by Brown. In the following section, entitled "second language acquisition," there is a brief discussion of the morpheme studies by second language learners. Lightbown and Spada do not cite any specific research. The following is their general description of the L2 morpheme studies:

The researchers took samples from a number of learners at one point in time, scored each morpheme for accuracy in the learners' speech and came up with an accuracy order for the morphemes. (p. 59)

Lightbown and Spada summarized the results of the morpheme studies as "reveal[ing] an order which, while not the same as that found in the first language studies, was similar among learners from different first language backgrounds" (p. 59). They conclude that, despite criticisms, "second language learners tend to acquire a set of English grammatical morphemes in a similar order (see Larsen- Freeman and Long 1991)" (p. 59).

Scarcella and Oxford discuss the morpheme studies in a section entitled "the natural order in the acquisition of grammatical morphemes." The following is their discussion of the studies:

In a series of studies pertaining to children acquiring a second language, Dulay and Burt (1974) provided evidence that children from different language backgrounds do not use their first language as the source for developing hypotheses about the second language. Instead, these researchers argue, children use universal, developmentally determined processes. Dulay and Burt examined the acquisition of English morphemes by Chinese- and Spanish-speaking children, ages 6-8. Their methodology consisted of collecting speech samples of the subjects' English language production and comparing the relative amount of error found in the use of 11 different grammatical morphemes„including the present progressive (-ing), plural (-s) and past tense marker (-ed). This set of grammatical morphemes was chosen because there had been previous studies concerning the order of these particular grammatical features for children acquiring English as a first language (Brown 1973). (p. 19) [-4-]

Following this paragraph Scarcella and Oxford cite Bailey, Madden and Krashen (1974). Noting that they used the same methodology as Dulay and Burt, Scarcella and Oxford note that "these researchers found that regardless of the learner's first language, the subjects displayed the same order of acquisition of morphemes" (p. 19).

Beginning a paragraph about problems with the morpheme studies, Scarcella and Oxford note "The results of these natural order studies, however, are far from conclusive" (p. 19). The major point made is that the morphemes were analyzed out of context and the specific function the morpheme may have was not noted.

This review of how the morpheme studies are presented reveals several clear differences among the six texts. Cook, Gass and Selinker, and Larsen-Freeman and Long are very similar. I believe all three give a good summary of the nature of the research, including listing the morphemes that were studied and the actual results. All three texts discuss criticisms of the research. Larsen-Freeman and Long, perhaps, are slightly more positive than Cook or Gass and Selinker on the value of the morpheme studies for understanding second language acquisition.

Lightbown and Spada provide the reader more information than Brown or Scarcella and Oxford; however, it is somewhat strange that they devote more space to discussing first language acquisition studies of the morphemes than the second language acquisition studies. In fact, they provide the morphemes and their order as found by Brown (1973), but they provide no such listing from the second language studies. However, Lightbown and Spada make clear that the methodology used by second language learners does not warrant a claim of acquisition order but an order of accuracy.

A lot of information about the morpheme studies is missing from Brown and from Scarcella and Oxford. The reader has no idea of the complete list of morphemes and their potential order. Neither text makes clear the exact relationship between Brown (1973) and the second language morpheme studies. Both claim, incorrectly I believe, that the studies show an order of acquisition. Although Scarcella and Oxford make a very good observation that the methodology of the morpheme studies meant that the researchers had no idea whether the function of the morpheme for the L2 learners was target-like, Brown's, Lightbown and Spada's and Scarcella and Oxford's summaries of criticisms are very cursory.

The more in-depth discussion of research in Gass and Selinker, Larsen-Freeman and Long, and Cook has a cost. Although all three texts claim to be introductions to the field and require no particular knowledge of linguistics, all three texts discuss data in terms that demand some knowledge of linguistics. On the other hand, Scarcella and Oxford and Brown do not require as much linguistic [-5-] knowledge; however, future teachers are left with very general claims about second language acquisition but with very little understanding of the research behind those claims. Lightbown and Spada try to strike a balance between providing enough information so newcomers to the field can understand some of the issues but not be overwhelmed by all the references possible. For the most part, I believe they are successful. For undergraduate course and introductory graduate courses, Lightbown and Spada is a text well worth considering.

For courses with students who have some linguistic knowledge, I find it difficult to choose which is the best among Gass and Selinker, Larsen-Freeman and Long, and Cook. I have used Larsen- Freeman and Long in an introductory course to second language acquisition and teaching. As LeLoup, the reviewer in this issue notes, it is very dense. My students had great difficulty in understanding all the references to studies. I find Gass and Selinker, and Cook, easier to read. All three texts have questions for study at the end of each chapter. Gass and Selinker provide a lot more questions with second language learner data than either Larsen-Freeman and Long or Cook.

As a measure of what we know about second language acquisition, Gass and Selinker, Larsen-Freeman and Long, and Cook are very impressive. All three show the dominance of applied linguistics. As an applied linguist myself, I believe that is as it should be. However, even if linguistics is core to the field, we need to know more about theories of learning.

Finally, it is worth remembering that there is a growing need in the United States for bilingual and ESL teachers in the public schools. These six texts could be used in courses for the training of these teachers. As an exercise to compare the kinds of information found across the six texts, I used McLaughlin (1992). This monograph discusses five myths that K-12 teachers might have about child second language learning which should be "unlearned." These myths are:

1. Children learn second languages quickly and easily.

2. The younger the child, the more skilled in acquiring a second language.

3. The more time students spend in a second language context, the quicker they learn the language.

4. Children have acquired a second language once they can speak it.

5. All children learn a second language in the same way. [-6-]

There is no question in my mind that all of these are myths, and the first four, especially, are believed by many people. All the texts have sections dealing with individual variation that can counter myth 5. Discussion of the critical period, in Lightbown and Spada, Gass and Selinker, and Larsen-Freeman and Long show why myth 1 is a myth. Myth 4 is crucial for teachers to unlearn because students can be misplaced if assessment procedures depend only on oral language proficiency. I could find no clear discussion in any of the texts that oral language is insufficient for many activities in a school setting. At best, the teacher could rely on the discussion of communicative competence and definitions of proficiency in Brown or Larsen-Freeman and Long for reasons why control of oral language is not sufficient for all the linguistic demands that children have to meet in school. I could find nothing in the texts reviewed here on myths 2 and 3.

That so little is presented about the acquisition of a second language by children in these basic textbooks is less a commentary on these texts than on the kind of research that is done on second language acquisition, especially in the United States. For political, economic and institutional reasons, we have a lot more studies about adults in American university intensive English institutes than we do about non-English speaking children in elementary and secondary classrooms. However, what research does exist must be made more accessible to the teachers and future teachers who will need it. Perhaps this is something we can look forward to in the revisions of the texts reviewed here.


Bailey, K., Madden, C., & Krashen, S. (1974). Is there a "natural sequence" in adult second language learning. Language Learning, 24, 235-243.

Brown, D. (1994). Principles of second language learning and teaching. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brown, R. (1973). A first language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cook, V. (1993). Linguistics and second language acquisition. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Dulay, H. & Burt, M. (1974). Natural sequences in child language acquisition. Language Learning, 24, 37-53.

Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [-7-]

Gass, S. & Selinker, L. (1994). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Long, M. (1991). An introduction to second language research. London: Longman.

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (1993). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1992). Myths and misconceptions about second language learning: What every teacher needs to unlearn. National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

Scarcella, R. & Oxford, R. (1992). The tapestry of language learning: The individual in the communicative classroom. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.

Towell, R. & Hawkins, R. (1994). Approaches to second language acquisition. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Robert Yates
Central Missouri State University


Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.