Vol. 5. No. 4 A-2 March 2002
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Applying SLA Research and Theory To Practice: What Can a Teacher Do?

Marjorie Hall Haley
George Mason University

Patricia Rentz
Fairfax County Public Schools Adult Education


Teacher education programs preparing students to become English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers devote large quantities of time and coursework to exploring second language acquisition (SLA) research. How and when is that information actualized in a classroom? This article examines a descriptive method for teachers of English as Second Language. The method incorporates second language acquisition research in a communicative classroom. A discussion of the importance of SLA research to teachers is followed by the selection of learner readiness and focus on form as two areas that a teacher might want to apply in an adult ESL classroom. Finally, some suggestions are made regarding selection of materials that may be of use to classroom teachers. It is the writers' intent to encourage readers to experiment in their classrooms with the application in practice of some ideas gleaned from SLA research and theory.


The field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research is an active, growing and fascinating one. As in many ongoing research areas, there are more questions than answers. For most teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL), at least one course in SLA is required to receive certification. There is currently much discussion about the relationship between research and practice in the classroom. This article looks at how teachers might choose some aspects of SLA research to apply in an adult ESL classroom and what information might be found in ESL textbooks to help. The assumption is made that the teacher is using communicative language teaching in the classroom since this is considered by many to be the current mainstream, particularly in ESL (Williams, 1995).

Why Look at SLA Research?

Manfred Pienemann (1995) poses the question, "Why is it important for language teachers to know about language acquisition?" (p. 3). He points out that the study of SLA takes the perspective of focusing on the learner rather than the learning environment. Looking at the learner and the language acquisition processes provides information on what learners normally do or do not do and what can and cannot be taught. Based on normal patterns of acquisition, teachers should be able to evaluate where their students are in the acquisition process. The study of SLA will also enable teachers to examine a syllabus to determine if the content is geared towards the learner's level of ability. Pienamann states: "It is important to know what is learnable at what point in time" (1995, p. 4). This is, of course, easier said than done. Lightbown (1998) notes that the heterogeneity of levels in classes is a well-known reality and developmentally targeted teaching would be very difficult to organize. Ellis (1997) points out that SLA research findings do not provide straightforward guidance for the teacher and probably never will. These findings are not generally presented in ways accessible or meaningful to teachers and SLA research agendas do not necessarily match the areas in which teachers are most concerned. [-1-]

However, SLA research does offer a wide variety of concepts and descriptive accounts that can help teachers interpret and make better sense of their own classroom experiences, as well as provide ideas for classroom use. For example, SLA research has provided descriptive accounts of the course of interlanguage development showing that, while learners follow relatively invariant routes of learning, these routes are not linear and during phases of interlanguage restructuring apparent regression occurs. Accounts such as these can help teachers to understand patterns of learner error and its inevitability and to accept the indirect nature of what is taught and what is learned (Mitchell & Myles, 1998).

Narrowing the Research Field

How does a teacher choose an area of focus from among the many facets of SLA research? A research survey provided by Lightbown and Spada (1993) describes research efforts to specifically investigate the relationships between teaching and learning. They examine five proposals for classroom teaching and research associated with each. They are:

  1. methods based on the behaviorist theory of language learning emphasizing accuracy and form and not allowing errors;
  2. methods based on the interactionist theory giving learners the opportunity for conversation where they receive meaningful input from teachers and students, which will in turn lead to acquisition of the grammar and words of the second language;
  3. methods based on the "comprehensible input" theory most closely associated with Stephen Krashen, where the emphasis is not on the interaction, but on providing input through listening and/or reading;
  4. methods based on teaching what the learner is ready to learn, most closely associated with Manfred Pienemann; and
  5. methods that "recognize a role for instruction, but also assume that not everything has to be taught" (Lightbown & Spada, 1993, p. 97). On the basis of the research results reported extensively in this article, Lightbown and Spada conclude that the last two proposals appear to have the most promise in terms of guiding teaching decisions:
  6. Classroom data from a number of studies offer support for the view that form-focused instruction and corrective feed back provided within the context of a communicative program are more effective in promoting second language learning than programs which are limited to an exclusive emphasis on accuracy on the one hand or an exclusive emphasis on fluency (1993, p. 105).

Based on this reported research, a combination of methods that would incorporate attention to "learner readiness" and "focus on form" in a communicative program would seem to be a mixture that a teacher should try to develop in the classroom. With this goal as a starting point, what does current research show that would help develop such an approach? [-2-]

Review of the Literature: Learner Readiness

In the literature on learner readiness and timing, there seems to be general agreement that there is a natural developmental sequence for a learner's interlanguage (the interim grammar formed by learners while learning a second language). As Ellis states:

The existence of developmental sequences is one of the most important findings of SLA research to date. There is now general acceptance in the SLA research community that the acquisition of an L2 grammar, like the acquisition of an L1 grammar, occurs in stages. (1994, p. 21)

The problem is that "variations in the specific order in which particular features occur have also been found" (Ellis, 1994, p. 21). So, while none of this is decided definitively, making use of some of the data regarding developmental sequences and learner readiness can provide a starting point for a teacher to look at applying such research in the classroom.

The most extensive pedagogical recommendations following from research on developmental sequences are those of Stephen Krashen and Manfred Pienemann. In terms of matching instruction to the stage of a learner's development, while Krashen and Pienemann both base their conclusions in part on the findings that learners of a second language proceed through predictable stages, their teaching proposals are quite different (Lightbown, 1998).

Krashen's "Natural Order Hypothesis" outlines rules of language that are acquired in a predictable order, but claims that this order is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes. Krashen recommends that teachers not attempt to time instruction to match learners' development, but emphasizes the value of language teaching methods based on the provision of "Comprehensible Input." In his Input Hypothesis, Krashen defines comprehensible input as L2 input just beyond the learner's current L2 competence, in terms of its syntactic complexity. If the input is understood and there is enough of it, the learner will automatically acquire the necessary grammar. He does not believe that focusing on any particular form will alter language acquisition (Krashen, as cited in Lightbown, 1998 and Mitchell & Myles, 1998).

Similarly, Pienemann's (1995) research has also shown that learners' interlanguages tend to develop along predictable paths. In his opinion, however, this fact can be used in syllabus construction, language assessment and error correction in a teaching context. Pienemann's studies involved attempting to teach a structure to a large group of learners at a particular stage that was two steps ahead of the current level of development. The intent was to determine if instruction would enable learners to skip a stage of acquisition, concluding that skipping a stage is not possible. On the other hand, there was evidence that when learners were given instruction at a level of only one step above their current level, then the speed of acquisition and accuracy in usage of the form is improved. This is what Pienemann calls the "Teachability Hypothesis," in other words, the teacher should teach what the learner is ready to learn targeting the next stage of development. Interestingly, these studies also show that teaching of the more advanced stages did result in learners' ability to use the new structures in written exercises and to explain the rules, but inability to produce the structures spontaneously. [-3-]

The latter result would be an example of what Stephen Krashen would call "learning" as opposed to "acquisition." While this concept is still the subject of much debate, it should be kept in mind by the teacher in observing learning processes in the classroom. Krashen contends that acquisition and learning are separate processes. Acquisition is subconscious and the result of natural interaction with the language via meaningful communication, while learning is conscious and the result of classroom experience (Krashen, cited in Mitchell & Myers, 1998). One aspect that is very problematic in this regard is that Krashen claims that learning cannot turn into acquisition (Krashen & Scarcella, 1978 as cited in Mitchell & Myers, 1998). Lightbown (1998) has challenged Krashen's viewpoint on not targeting a particular form to teach, citing recent classroom-based research as providing evidence that learners not only benefit from, but may sometimes require, focus on form to overcome incorrect or incomplete knowledge of specific structures (e.g. Lightbown & Pienemann, 1993; Lyster, 1994; Swain, 1991; L.White, Spada, Lightbown & Ranta, 1991).

While this research is inconclusive on whether or not targeting a particular stage of development for teaching will actually improve a learner's progress, the fact that the developmental sequences for many structures have been discovered makes such an effort worthwhile. Pienemann is continuing to research this area and has developed a "Processability Theory," which formally predicts which structures can be processed by a learner at a given level of development. The theory makes correct predictions for the L2 acquisition of morpho-syntax in English, German, Swedish and Japanese (Pienemann, 1998). The grammatical structures with documented uniformity of L2 acquisition orders include interrogative structures, negation, relative clauses, control structures, pronouns, word order in main and embedded clauses, and morphemes (Zobl, 1995).

Connecting Theory and Research to Practice: Focus on form

The second aspect of research to be factored into the communicative classroom is a focus on form in addition to the attention to meaning. The concept of focus on form comes out of the debate on whether and how to include "grammar" in second language instruction. The suggestion that second language teaching that is primarily meaning-focused could be improved with some degree of attention to form has proved controversial among some teachers, and has led to a range of reactions from rejection by wholly communicative teachers to misguided embrace by those who want to return to discrete-point grammar instruction (Doughty & Williams, 1998). Focus on form must be distinguished from "focus on formS." Focus on formS is the traditional notion of teaching with a focus on the elements of grammar, in isolation from context or communicative activity. With focus on formS, the primary organizing principle of course design was accumulation of individual language elements (for example, forms such as verb endings or agreement features, or even functions such as greetings or apologies). The primary distinction is that "focus on form" entails a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features can be expected to be effective. Two definitions of focus on form provided by Michael Long: "focus on form...overtly draws students' attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication" (Long, 1991, pp. 45-46), and "focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features--by the teacher and/or one or more students - triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production" (Long & Robinson, 1998, p. 23). [-4-]

A growing body of research suggests that an increased focus on form is likely to lead to a change in grammatical knowledge insofar as it is manifested in learner behavior (Williams, 1995). In particular the following uses of form-based knowledge have been suggested:

A more direct statement of the advantages of focusing on form is that it speeds up the rate of learning; it affects acquisition processes in ways possibly beneficial to long-term accuracy, and it appears to raise the ultimate level of attainment (Long, 1991).

Teachers and Their Everyday Practices

Armed with an understanding of the basic concept and a desire to put a focus on form into effect, how should a teacher proceed? The majority of SLA researchers now support the idea that some kind of focus on form is useful for some forms, for some students, at some point in the learning process (DeKeyser, 1995; N. Ellis, 1993; R. Ellis, 1993; VanPatten & Cadierno, 1993). Other than that, there is little certainty regarding what forms students should be made to focus on and how and when. There is, however, some useful research which can help inform a teacher's decisions.

Various explanations have been offered as to why certain forms may be acquired. Most of them tend to fall in the following categories:

  1. Salience in the input that is, if learners notice certain forms or constructions, for whatever reason, for example frequency or unusualness, they are more likely to acquire them;
  2. Communicative function or meaningfulness in the output -- even if learners notice a form, or it is pointed out through instruction, if they have no communicative need for the form, acquisition may be delayed;
  3. Inherent difficulty of rules -- learners tend to acquire "easier" rules early and may never acquire "hard" rules. The definition of what is "easy", however, varies (Doughty & Williams, 1998).

The concept of "noticing" is one that should resonate with those who have experienced looking up or hearing the meaning of a new word they were curious about--suddenly the word seems to be everywhere. Schmidt (cited in Harley, 1998) defines the conscious experience of noticing as the "registration of the occurrence of a stimulus event in conscious awareness and subsequent storage in long term memory" (p. 179). He also points out that it is now conventional wisdom that "target language forms will not be acquired unless they are noticed and that one important way that instruction works is by increasing the salience of target language forms in input so that they are more likely to be noticed by learners" (p. 195). [-5-]

What is the best way to get learners to notice a form? There is a wide range of possibilities for the classroom and, taking into account different learner styles, the teacher should probably try more than one. The implicit approaches such as input flooding, visual input enhancement, or intonational focus on learner errors (an auditory version of input enhancement) have been minimally effective (J. White, 1998). Some studies, however, have shown that input enhancement (such as using larger fonts or colors in text to highlight a form) could be an effective implicit focus on form technique, at least for adult learners (Doughty & Williams, 1998).

In the area of explicit input processing there is a technique called processing instruction. This is a type of grammar instruction whose purpose is to "affect the ways in which learners attend to input data. It is input-based, as opposed to output-based, is consonant with both general second language acquisition theory and communicative language teaching" (VanPatten, 1996, p. 2). According to Doughty and Williams, "In input processing, learners are told what to pay attention to and what to notice and why they must change their processing" (1998, p. 240).

While input is clearly necessary for noticing, research has also shown that output plays an important part. As reported by Swain (1998), "it is while attempting to produce the target language (vocally or subvocally) that learners may notice that they do not know how to say (or write) precisely the meaning they wish to convey" (p. 67). Some of the output techniques that may be employed include negotiation tasks, metatalking, and consciousness-raising. Negotiation tasks are ways to engage learners in output that attracts feedback from a peer interlocutor (Doughty & Williams, 1998). Metatalking involves talking about the language. One procedure used to encourage this is a dictogloss, where a short text is read to learners at normal speed, students write down words and phrases as they hear them, and then work together in small groups to reconstruct the text (Swain, 1998). Consciousness-raising tasks deliberately direct learners to attend to form, for example working interactively in small groups to solve grammar problems (Doughty & Williams, 1998).

In addition to input and output methods, consideration must be given to feedback and interaction. In terms of feedback, teachers may intervene in order to direct learner attention to form by using corrective recasting or input-processing techniques. Recasts, or a corrective reformulation of learners' utterances have been shown to be more effective than presenting models which contain the same grammatical information (Long & Robinson, 1998). One interaction technique is called interaction enhancement, where a teacher encourages L2 learners to produce output and provides them with interactional modifications in order to lead them to notice a mismatch between their interlanguage grammar and that of the target language. They are then led to modify the incorrect output (Doughty & Williams, 1998).

This broadbrush overview of some of the techniques possible in focus on form should give teachers an idea of the range of possibilities available to try in a classroom. It has been shown from classroom studies that combinations of (rather than individual) focus on form techniques are likely to be most useful. As Doughty and Williams state: "Some proven combinations are promoting perceptual salience plus input flooding, directing learner attention to salient or frequent linguistic features, intonational focus plus corrective recasting, and...interaction enhancement" (1998, p. 243). [-6-]

Selecting Materials

Having decided to apply aspects of SLA research and focus on form techniques in the classroom, what kind of help can teachers find in selecting materials? Most modern communicative textbooks provide very useful information that enables a teacher to select the order of presentation of materials. Detailed tables of contents and explanations of concepts and grammar to be presented provide information that allows a teacher to adapt the order to an acquisition sequence the teacher has chosen for the class. Textbooks that offer flexibility to an instructor desiring to introduce some focus on form in the communicative classroom include those that incorporate a variety of activities--video, audio, and Internet-based activities.


This paper was written as an effort to provide a possible framework for teachers to apply some aspects of SLA research in a communicative classroom setting. The importance of knowledge of language acquisition to teachers is demonstrated, as well as the fact that the research does not provide straightforward guidance to follow. The approach proposed in this article is for teachers to incorporate a knowledge and attention to learner readiness with a focus on form in a communicative classroom. Keeping in mind the relatively predictable paths of L2 interlanguage development, teachers should be equipped to understand where their students are in terms of readiness. They should also be able to teach at the level appropriate for the greatest number of their students. The concept of focus on form is proposed as a method many researchers believe is an effective way for L2 learners to acquire grammar. The benefit of focus on form is the wide range of possible teaching methods that can be employed to encourage students to "notice" the forms. This gives the teachers the opportunity to experiment with a number of methods and to take into account the different learning styles in their classrooms. It is also very encouraging that the most current adult ESL textbooks are clearly aimed at allowing the flexibility to address different learning styles as well as different teaching styles. With a little effort and trial and error, teachers should be able to discover for themselves some useful new insights.


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About the Authors

Marjorie Hall Haley is Associate Professor in the Center for Multilingual/Multicultural Education in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Dr. Haley received her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education and English as a Second Language from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has also earned a Master's degree in education and advanced studies certificate from Towson University and Johns Hopkins University, respectively. Dr. Haley teaches courses in Foreign/Second Language Methods, ESL Methods, and Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition Research.

Patricia Rentz received her BA in French from St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY and did graduate studies in National Security Affairs, National War College, Ft. McNair, Wash. D.C. She holds a graduate certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language from George Mason University having retired after 33 years as linguist and administrator with the CIA.

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