SLA Topics     SLA Bibliography    Vivian Cook 

Spreading the Influence of sla Research 
Vivian Cook

unpublished circa 1998

This paper suggests that second language acquisition (SLA) research could be channelled into teaching through the student, the coursebook or the syllabus as well as through the teacher, illustrated with examples of possible influences on the syllabus and the coursebook. 

A standard introduction to second language acquisition (SLA) research claims ‘One of the fundamental goals of SLA research is to facilitate and expedite the SLA process’ (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991, p.6). Part of the motivation of SLA pioneers such as Robert Lado and Pit Corder was indeed to improve teaching by studying language learning. This paper suggests that second language acquisition (SLA) research could be channelled into teaching through the student, the coursebook or the syllabus as well as through the popular route via the teacher. It is written from the position of somebody who has been involved both as EFL teacher and course-book writer within a British context and as an SLA researcher. Since it is illustrated chiefly from EFL sources, some discussion may not necessarily apply to the teaching of other modern languages.

Types of influence

SLA research can influence teaching in at least three ways.

- ‘availability’, that is to say, the fruits of SLA research are made available to people concerned with teaching such as students or teachers so that they can use it for their own ends. The research is presented as fairly as possible; it is up to the teaching profession or the students to select and exploit it in their own ways. SLA research is part of the knowledge-base that those involved in teaching should have available to them.

- ‘usability’, that is to say, specific uses for SLA research in language teaching are put forward, which those directly concerned can try out or ignore.

Ellis (1997, p.32) makes a related distinction between ‘applied SLA’ which looks at the educational relevance of SLA research and ‘SLA applied’ in which ‘an attempt is made to apply SLA research’. The term ‘applied’ is not used here in order to stress SLA research as an influence on teaching rather than as an application, avoiding any implication that students and teachers do not have the ultimate right to decide for themselves what should happen in their own spheres. The concept of ‘availability’ differs from ‘applied SLA’ in assuming a neutral transmission of potentially useful information rather than its evaluation.

- action research, that is to say, the teachers themselves investigate what happens in their own teaching situation, as dealt with in for example McDonough & McDonough (1997). This will not be considered here partly for reasons of space, partly because the links between SLA research and teaching are more complex in this case since, in one version, action research involves doing new research as a form of teacher training rather than as a way of spreading existing SLA research.

Relating SLA research and language teaching

SLA research could relate to language teaching at many different levels. Krashen (1983) claims SLA research should be applied at the level of general theory. Cook (1992) describes two continua from general to specific, in SLA research going from SLA theories to specific SLA results, in language teaching from teaching styles to practical teaching techniques, agreeing with Krashen that specific SLA research is an inappropriate basis for general teaching styles but disagreeing that the only relevant level of SLA research is necessarily theory; some specific findings may be as useful for teaching as some large-scale discovery; an insight into the acquisition of a particular sound, say, might be useful for teaching its pronunciation.

Any SLA research to be used in teaching has to meet additional criteria about ethics, validity, scope and appropriacy, enumerated in Cook (1999), in particular how well the languages involved in SLA research match the L1 and L2 involved in the teaching and how similar the L2 learners studied are to the students in relevant aspects such as age. If research based on the acquisition of English by Spanish-speaking children in the USA is to be relevant, say, to the teaching of French to adults in Germany, it has to be clear that the apparent differences are outweighed by the high level of generality of the findings.

One reason why SLA research may have had comparatively little influence on language teaching is its ambition to prove itself an independent discipline, with conferences, associations and journals of its own. Newmeyer and Weinberger (1988, p.42) indeed regret that pressure from publishers to deal with pedagogy ‘has slowed down the development of second language acquisition as an independent discipline’. The battle for independence meant distancing itself from language teaching and developing connections to linguistics and psychology (Cook, 1996a; Mitchell & Myles, 1998), resulting in its increasing isolation (Thomas, 1998). The present paper does not see that the autonomy of SLA research is now threatened by exploring its usefulness for language teaching.

Achieving the goals of language teaching

Language teaching sets out to achieve an implicit or explicit set of goals, whether for the learners or for the society. It is a purpose-directed activity whose purposes do not lie within the teaching situation itself and which are very different from the academic goals of SLA research. A second language may be taught inter alia as:

* a vehicle to self-development, as in Community Language Learning;

* a method of training new cognitive processes, as in the traditional ‘brain-training’ rationale for teaching Latin;

* a way-in to the mother-tongue;

* an entrée to the culture of another group;

* a means of enabling people to communicate with those who speak another language.

In general, there are ‘international’ goals that meet the needs of a society to deal with other societies for political or business ends, ‘local’ goals that meet the internal needs of a single society to cope with the lives of its own members, and ‘personal’ goals that meet the needs of individual students whether for careers, for self-improvement or whatever (Cook, 1996b). Most language teaching tries to cover a selection of these goals. For example the UK national guidelines for language teaching (HMSO, 1995) include four of the above five goals, only self-development being lacking. Some syllabuses go even further; English in Malaysia is intended to encourage the virtues of ‘good citizenship, moral values and the Malaysian way of life’ (Kementarian Pendidikan Malaysia, 1987).

The diversity of teaching goals is not always recognised in the discussions of the uses of SLA research in teaching. The goal of teaching is typically seen as some form of ‘functional bilingualism’, unachievable as this may be (Jakobovits & Gordon, 1973). Ellis (1990, p.188) assumes that ‘the raison d’être of the classroom is to learn the language’, rephrased as ‘LP [language pedagogy] is concerned with the ability to use language in communicative situations’ (Ellis, 1996, p.74); in other words language teaching helps the learner to use the language. But, in many educational systems, communication is only one among many overt or covert goals of language teaching, as illustrated above; language use is a subsidiary or far-distant goal; few learners of English in China, for instance, can realistically expect to use the language for spoken communication. As Jakobovits & Gordon (1974, p.4) remarked ‘There are valid educational objectives in learning a second language that are other than the attainment of bilingualism’. The most divergent goal is perhaps the Freirean use of language teaching as a vehicle for politicisation of the oppressed (Wallerstein, 1983).

SLA research itself should not have the authority to dictate to societies how to deal with their external or internal relations or to tell individuals why they should learn an L2. The goals are set by the milieu, the educational system, the demands of employers, the teachers or the students themselves. SLA researchers may offer advice how goals can be best achieved in the light of research but cannot determine what the goals themselves should be without exceeding their remit. The availability concept in a sense is saying that decisions about language teaching should not be based on ignorance; it may be the duty of SLA research to say which goals can be realistically achieved and to present the decision makers with the relevant information. But after that it is up to them to decide—a separation of roles similar to a civil service that advises and a government that decides. Research for example has shown the beneficial effects of learning a second language on the students’ minds, whether in raising their awareness of language (Bialystok, 1986) or in helping them to read their first language (Yelland, Pollard & Mercuri, 1993); ‘brain-training’ may be an achievable goal for language teaching if it is defined appropriately. But it is not up to SLA research as such to decide whether or not brain-training is desirable, even if in their off-duty hours SLA researchers have strong opinions.

Potential areas of influence

It is a truism that language teaching has many sides. Teaching involves the interaction of at least the students, the teacher, the situation, the society and the two languages involved. Prabhu (1992) describes four aspects of the classroom lesson: the unit of teaching, the teaching method, the social activity, and the social encounter. Stern’s ‘general model for second language teaching’ has three chief levels ‘Practice’, ‘Educational Linguistics’, and ‘Foundations’, each with many sub-levels (Stern, 1983, p.44).

Let us look at six areas of teaching that SLA research might seek to influence.

i. the design of syllabuses. Goals lead, explicitly or implicitly, to a specification of what the students need to learn, that is to say a syllabus. Communicative goals for instance meant amplifying the syllabus with aspects of communication such as functions, topics and notions (Wilkins, 1976). Many syllabuses are prescribed by national curriculum developers or course-book writers rather than teachers.

So far the development of syllabuses seems more affected by shifts in language teaching methodology and by changing perceptions of discourse than by SLA research. In principle information from SLA research could help in deciding how to translate the goals into the syllabus. Mostly SLA research has tried to influence the sequencing of the language content rather than the choice of what should be taught, for example the ‘teachability hypothesis’ (Pienemann, 1989) and the structural syllabus (Ellis, 1993). In terms of availability, a knowledge of SLA research is useful to those who shape the syllabus as well as to those who deliver it. In terms of usability, particular facets of SLA research could be incorporated in the syllabus; for example the types of pragmatic strategy found in the early stages of SLA across languages (Klein & Perdue, 1997) might form the basic syllabus for beginners.

ii. teaching methodology. Though discussions of general methodologies in language teaching are rare these days, a lesson nevertheless still shows an overall methodological orientation, for example whether to emphasise spoken or written language. Everything that happens in teaching is the result of a choice, whether exercised by the teacher, the student or someone else.

SLA research has been used as the basis for methods of language teaching, mostly at a general level not at a level of practical suggestions. It is a matter of a general theory suggesting an overall teaching method, as Krashen (1983) recommended, rather than of a specific aspect of language learning leading to a particular exercise type. The audiolingual methods put forward say by Lado (1964) were based on the theories of learning current in structuralist linguistics. The use of authentic speech in the classroom was justified by the UG theory claim that input is needed to trigger parameter setting (Cook, 1996b). Most famously the Input Hypothesis theory led to the Natural Method (Krashen & Terrell, 1983).

The danger in this direct application of theories has always been the limited focus of SLA research versus the complexity of teaching. Teachers are right when they say that the researchers do not take into account the complexities of their situation because it is the very nature of research to abstract away from the specific situation: gravity is a theory about the universe, not about apples. An approach advocated for sound SLA research reasons may be unusable in the classroom because of the many other factors that teaching has to take into account. As Spolsky (1989) wisely remarks, ‘any theory of second language learning that leads to a single method must be wrong.’

The availability option might then influence the choice of teaching technique. For example the greater use of cognitive learning strategies by beginners (O’Malley & Chamot, 1989) suggests particular types of teaching exercise at this stage. In terms of usability, practical exercises might exploit the Vygotskyan notion of scaffolding in which a problem is solved interactively through progressive steps (Mitchell & Myles, 1998).

iii. the design of teaching materials. Much of the student’s language learning is mediated by the coursebooks or materials the teacher uses in terms both of language content and teaching technique (Prabhu, to appear); ‘90 percent of the time teacher instruction follows the text’ (Komoski, 1985, cited in Crookes, 1997). Innovations in method or technique can be passed on through teaching materials (Hutchinson & Hutchinson, 1994); the course Voix et Images de France (CREDIF, 1961) single-handedly propagated the audio-visual method. Course design has become an art of its own, complete in the UK with its own association, MATSDA, and with a literature ranging from Stevick (1971) to McDonough & Shaw (1993) and Tomlinson (1998).

Yet many published coursebooks seem barely touched by SLA research. Jolly and Bolitho (1998, p.112-115) provide a ‘materials writer’s kitbag’ of useful items such as grammars and methodology handbooks, from which SLA research is conspicuously absent. The comprehensible input dictum that ‘we acquire language by understanding messages’ (Krashen, 1985), though much discussed, has directly influenced a few EFL course-books, for instance the listening-based activities of primary-school courses such as Conrad and Company (Ballinger, Davis, Gerngross, Hladnig & Puchta, 1993); it may be that teachers of other languages are better served, for example teachers of French in the United States by Deux Mondes (Terrell, Rogers, Barnes & Spielmann, 1997). Task-based learning to some extent is now having its day in books such as Nunan (1995). The outstanding example that extended from SLA theory to teaching materials is the learning strategies approach of O’Malley and Chamot (1989). Yet perhaps the majority of course-books show little sign of any SLA influence. It is not that coursebook writers are necessarily indifferent to new ideas; during the same time-span as much SLA research the ideas of communicative language teaching have revolutionised EFL coursebooks.

To take the writing system as a useful area of SLA research, availability could consist of providing course-book writers or teachers who produce their own materials with information about the acquisition of different orthographic systems (Koda, 1996); usability could mean providing them with information on typical L2 learner spelling mistakes, say English mistakes from Spanish learners (Bebout, 1985). Tomlinson (1998, p.34) sums it up (capital letters as in original): ‘WE NEED TO FIND WAYS OF BRINGING TOGETHER RESEARCHERS, TEACHERS, WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS SO AS TO POOL RESOURCES AND TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DIFFERENT AREAS OF EXPERTISE IN ORDER TO PRODUCE MATERIALS OF GREATER VALUE TO LEARNERS OF LANGUAGES’.

iv. the design of public examinations and tests. The form of the examination exerts as much influence on the classroom as any choice of method. Public examinations such as TOEFL, IELTS or Cambridge Proficiency belong to a testing tradition of their own, with tangential contact with SLA research except through general assumptions about language as communication, etc, with a few exceptions. Most teachers can do little about such examinations other than enable their students to take them effectively. If TOEFL or IELTS or any other test emphasises a particular goal, responsible teachers have to prepare students for it, regardless of their own feelings.

The influence of SLA research on public examinations can not only benefit the tests but can also cascade into the classroom. The availability influence would mean disseminating a knowledge of SLA research to professional testers and examiners; for instance an awareness of the strategies that students use for learning vocabulary (Cohen, 1990) could inform the ways in which vocabulary knowledge is examined. The usability influence would meaning taking areas from SLA research as a basis for testing, say taking the strategies by which people compensate for lack of vocabulary described in Poulisse (1996) as a way of measuring their skill at L2 use.

v. the student. The purpose of language teaching is in a sense to produce a changed student, whether in terms of extra knowledge, career opportunities, cognitive processes, communicative expertise, or any of the other changes that teaching could bring about. The process of language learning depends on the decisions and involvement of the students, based on their experience of life and of language as individuals. A better understanding of the student can help with everything from goals to examinations.

Although SLA research is primarily concerned with learners, discussions of its influence on teaching have concentrated on access to classroom students through teachers. Students have minds and rights of their own, independent of the teacher. The learner autonomy movement for example allows the students to make their own choices (Dickinson, 1987). The availability approach can mean giving students relevant information about SLA research; some SLA books such as Doyle & Meara (1991) and Rubin & Thompson (1982) have indeed aimed their message at the students themselves; Cohen (1990) is aimed at both students and teachers. Some EFL course-books such as Ellis & Sinclair (1989) build in exercises for the students to explore their own learning styles and strategies. But there may be other ways of influencing students than through their explicit knowledge of how people learn second languages.

vi. the teacher. At the still centre of this moving world is the teacher, trying to balance the different pressures and influences that shape the classroom event. In general it has been the teacher’s understanding of teaching that is seen as open to influence from SLA research. Published discussions of the relevance of SLA research to teaching such as the 1983 Georgetown Roundtable (Alatis, Stern & Strevens, 1983) overwhelmingly focus on the teacher, though whom effects on methods and techniques and on the student are mediated. The volume Second Language Acquisition Theory and Pedagogy (Eckman, Highland, Lee, Mileham & Weber, 1995) has one mention of testing, three mentions of teaching method, and no mentions at all of goals, techniques or teaching materials. The major influences are seen as making SLA research available in teacher-training or as involving the teacher in action research. Markee (1993) calls SLA research ‘a resource for changing teachers’ professional cultures’. Lightbown (1985) sees the chief role of SLA research as giving teachers realistic expectations about L2 learners. Schachter (1993, p.181) believes ‘the most fruitful interactions come about when the concerns of second language teachers and second language researchers coincide’. The book SLA Research and Language Teaching (Ellis, 1997) starts promisingly by talking of ‘other practitioners of language pedagogy (e.g. syllabus designers, test constructors, and materials writers)’ (p.9), but the rest of the book is addressed to teachers. The few dissenting voices complain about the ‘individualistic perspective’ of SLA research reducing its relevance to teachers (Freeman & Johnson, 1998, p.397), not that other people than the teacher have been neglected.

The teacher is indeed one point of entry into teaching, convenient for many SLA researchers because teacher training is often among their professional activities. The obvious availability option is to communicate ideas about SLA to teachers as part of their teaching expertise. But not all learning requires a teacher. Concentrating on the teacher ignores the roles of students and materials writers in autonomous learning situations where no teacher is involved, for instance in the computer networking of L2 virtual worlds and chat-lines, let alone more conventional self-instructional materials.

Valuable as it may be to talk about the role of the teacher in language teaching, this should not be at the expense of the other roles. A contrast has often been drawn between researchers and practitioners, meaning language teachers. Clarke (1994) points up the unreality of this distinction, particularly the lack of an overall SLA ‘theory’. In many situations the responsibility for successful teaching is shared among several people; teachers are indeed practitioners of classroom teaching but they are in effect consumers of the products of syllabus designers, examination setters, text-book writers, publishers and applied linguists. SLA research could usefully influence these other people rather than the language teacher alone. While teachers should be encouraged to be more discriminating consumers and to make choices against or within the system that binds them, it could also be effective to explore how SLA research can influence these products.

In some classrooms teachers fill many of these roles, choosing the goals, writing the materials, designing the tests, and so on. Outside the classroom these roles can be specialised to a small group of people, usually ex-teachers, writing coursebooks or setting national examinations; each of these areas can be practiced by specialists with particular training and expertise. Teachers have sometimes believed they had the entire responsibility for teaching, as if a doctor not only treated patients but also invented and manufactured the drugs to treat them with. Seeing the teacher as the practitioner of language teaching has obscured the fact that most teaching involves a battery of skills, only some of which are fully within a typical teacher’s control or expertise. What percentage of classroom teachers actually write coursebooks, design national syllabuses or set national examinations?

In many circumstances even the decision about what happens in the classroom is outside the teacher’s jurisdiction. In the United Kingdom it could be illegal for a modern language teacher in a secondary school to use the first language in the classroom, since this is laid down by Government Orders carrying out Acts of Parliament (Macaro, 1997). In the United States too teachers have been increasingly controlled by the educational system (Apple & Jungck, 1990). Teachers have whatever degree of autonomy the educational system, the examination system and the needs of the particular students allow them; despite the pleas by Jakobovits and Gordon (1973), the teacher’s ‘freedom to teach’ has everywhere become more circumscribed under the guise of teacher accountability and evaluation.


The choices in language teaching are represented conceptually in Figure 1. Ideally goals lead to the syllabuses, which in turn are reflected in the examinations, the teaching methods and the course-books. The decisions about these aspects of teaching are made by at least six groups of people inside and outside the teaching situation. Behind these stand other figures, such as parents, teacher trainers and editors. SLA research has up to now been seen as influencing choices made inside the teaching situation, primarily by teachers and to some extent by students, represented in the upper half of the figure. What has been under-emphasised so far is its influence on those who make choices about teaching outside the teaching situation, whether administrators, syllabus designers, examiners or course-book writers, shown in the lower half.

To conclude, the influence of SLA research on language teaching is only starting to be tapped. Influencing teachers by making SLA research available can indeed help them to make better-informed judgements. Yet this may confine the influence of SLA research to the classroom under the teachers’ control rather than spreading it to all aspects of teaching inside and outside the classroom. It does not matter whether SLA researchers see themselves as independent; the test is whether language teaching can make use of SLA research, probably in ways that researchers cannot anticipate: a practical application of space science after all turned out to be a coating for frying pans. Perhaps one day the hopes of the SLA research pioneers will be fulfilled.


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