Second Language Acquisition Applied to English Language Teaching

by Michael Lessard-Clouston
TESOL Press 2018

For many teachers of English as a second language, Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is a bewildering maze of ideas and terminology hardly worth considering. It is often assumed to be light on practical value, whilst heavy on theory. However, in Second Language Acquisition Applied to English Language Teaching, the subject is given clarity and practicality in a book that can be read in one sitting.

The book is well suited to language teachers who have some experience to reflect on, but are still getting to grips with how best to teach in any given context. It also provides a very helpful introduction to those studying TESOL or Applied Linguistics at undergraduate or graduate level. Reading it will give teachers greater insight into the theory behind many teaching practices. And as it is based on sound research, it should also help them question and develop their own teaching methodology.

The first two chapters unpack SLA and its early history as a field of study. Chapter 1 starts by defining SLA, and then goes on to explain how teachers can draw on both their own experiences and an understanding of their students as language learners rather than simply non-native speakers. Chapter 2 introduces Stephen Krashen as a foundational influence on the field of SLA, together with his five principles: the acquisition-learning, natural order, monitor, input and affective filter hypotheses. The author explains each of these with a clear definition, practical examples and some pertinent applications to teaching today.

The next three chapters discuss three ‘essential components’ of learning English: input, output and interaction. As in the rest of the book, Lessard-Clouston aims to present some of the latest and most influential research, while leaving the reader to investigate its worth. Various distinctions of input are discussed in Chapter 3: non-interactive/interactive, positive/negative, incidental/noticed and input/intake. The chapter ends with the value of an underlying linguistic system, extensive reading while listening, and input leading to output. Chapter 4 outlines the output hypothesis as developed by Merrill Swain. Pushed output, as she called it, brings meaning, opportunities to test the target language system, interaction and greater accuracy. The chapter concludes with examples demonstrating the link between output and input. Chapter 5 describes how interaction encourages negotiation of meaning, but takes on many different forms, according to the context. This chapter shows in a practical way how interaction can be encouraged in a variety of teaching contexts, such as large classes or EFL situations.

The last three chapters cover a lot of ground. Chapter 6 provides evidence that age is not a deal breaker for language learning, but merely a factor necessitating varied approaches. The author goes on to describe the need to minimise anxiety by creating a comfortable class atmosphere and setting up activities or tests thoughtfully. Some distinctions within error correction (mistakes/errors, global/local errors) are laid out. Finally, practical suggestions are given, like the use of coding systems and various types of feedback – not least, regular encouragement!

Chapter 7 is a particularly useful chapter for practitioners, as it outlines  a series of principles from Brian Tomlinson, which can help match suitable ELT materials to SLA theory.
It sets out the value of rich and meaningful content, engaging learners, noticing form and meaning, and opportunities for language use.

Chapter 8 culminates with an assessment of what SLA can offer classroom teachers, by bringing together some new factors with those previously discussed. The author acknowledges the complexities of language learning and SLA in particular. Next, he reviews the importance of appropriate input, output and interaction, and then provides a useful vignette to work through. The following section briefly describes the place for vocabulary, grammar and focus-on-form within SLA, including the importance of productive tasks.

The last two sections make brief suggestions and encouragement for applying SLA theory in the classroom, since, as the author puts it: ‘Perhaps the main value of SLA is to help teachers recognise how understanding learning  can better inform their teaching.

Besides the expansive introduction to SLA this short book gives, there are a number of features which make it a great tool for teachers. In addition to a clear presentation of the relevant literature, anecdotes serve to reinforce the points being made. In every chapter, the well-crafted reflective questions tease out the readers’ teaching methodology. Around 30 of these reflection features are placed at strategic points, to allow what has been read to be processed and put into practice. There are also two vignettes, which are basically short case studies, placing  the reader in contexts demanding thoughtful application of the principles they have learnt. Lastly, the list of references at the end will help the reader decide which aspects of SLA they wish to explore in more detail.

Overall, I found this book to be an inviting introduction to a complex and sometimes confounding subject. Having taught for many years myself and had some experience learning a second language, I appreciated the way these two aspects were brought together. Evidently, the author knows his subject well and only references the foremost research. Readers may find certain sections frustratingly short and wish for more definite conclusions from the author himself. Nonetheless, as an overview of SLA for teachers who have never ventured to study it before, it is a most adequate companion. It explains simply and applies practically the theories which have influenced us as teachers, whether we knew it or not.

Timothy Steele Birmingham, UK