S is for SLA

1 03 2015

The criteria for evaluating the worth of any aid to language learning (whether print or digital, and, in the case of the latter, whether app, program, game, or the software that supports these) must include some assessment of its fitness for purpose. That is to say, does it facilitate learning?

But how do you measure this? Short of testing the item on a representative cross-section of learners, we need a rubric according to which its learning potential might be predicted. And this rubric should, ideally, be informed by our current understandings of how second languages are best learned, understandings which are in turn derived — in part at least — from the findings of researchers of second language acquisition (SLA).

This is easier said than done, of course, as there is (still) little real consensus on how the burgeoning research into SLA should be interpreted. This is partly because of the invisibility of most cognitive processes, but also because of the huge range of variables that SLA embraces: different languages, different aspects of language, different learners, different learning contexts, different learning needs, different learning outcomes, different instructional materials, and so on. Generalizing from research context A to learning context B is fraught with risks. It is for this reason that, in a recent article, Nina Spada (2015) urges caution in extrapolating classroom applications from the findings of SLA researchers.

Cautiously, then, and following VanPatten and Williams’ (2007) example, I’ve compiled a list of ‘observations’ about SLA that have been culled from the literature (albeit inflected by my own particular preoccupations). On the basis of these, and inspired by Long (2011), I will then attempt to frame some questions that can be asked of any teaching aid (tool, device, program, or whatever) in order to calculate its potential for facilitating learning.

Exposure to input is necessary

Here, then, are 12 observations:

  1. The acquisition of an L2 grammar follows a ‘natural order’ that is roughly the same for all learners, independent of age, L1, instructional approach, etc., although there is considerable variability in terms of the rate of acquisition and of ultimate achievement (Ellis 2008), and, moreover, ‘a good deal of SLA happens incidentally’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  2. ‘The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex’ (Lightbown 2000).
  3. ‘Exposure to input is necessary’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  4. ‘Language learners can benefit from noticing salient features of the input’ (Tomlinson 2011).
  5. Learners benefit when their linguistic resources are stretched to meet their communicative needs (Swain 1995).
  6. Learning is a mediated, jointly-constructed process, enhanced when interventions are sensitive to, and aligned with, the learner’s current stage of development (Lantolf and Thorne 2006).
  7. ‘There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning’ (Ellis 2008).
  8. Learners can learn from each other during communicative interaction (Swain et al. 2003).
  9. Automaticity in language processing is a function of ‘massive repetition experiences and consistent practice’ in ‘real operating conditions’ (Segalowitz 2003; Johnson 1996).
  10. A precondition of fluency is having rapid access to a large store of memorized sequences or chunks (Nattinger & DeCarrico 1992; Segalowitz 2010)
  11. Learning, particularly of words, is aided when the learner makes strong associations with the new material (Sökmen 1997).
  12. The more time (and the more intensive the time) spent on learning tasks, the better (Muñoz 2012). Moreover, ‘learners will invest effort in any task if they perceive benefit from it’ (Breen 1987); and task motivation is optimal when challenge and skill are harmonized (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

On the basis of these observations, and confronted by a novel language learning tool (app, game, device, blah blah), the following questions might be asked:

  1. ADAPTIVITY: Does the tool accommodate the non-linear, often recursive, stochastic, incidental, and idiosyncratic nature of learning, e.g. by allowing the users to negotiate their own learning paths and goals?
  2. COMPLEXITY: Does the tool address the complexity of language, including its multiple interrelated sub-systems (e.g. grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse, pragmatics)?
  3. INPUT: Does it provide access to rich, comprehensible, and engaging reading and/or listening input? Are there means by which the input can be made more comprehensible? And is there a lot of input (so as to optimize the chances of repeated encounters with language items, and of incidental learning)?
  4. NOTICING: Are there mechanisms whereby the user’s attention is directed to features of the input and/or mechanisms that the user can enlist to make features of the input salient?
  5. OUTPUT: Are there opportunities for language production? Are there means whereby the user is pushed to produce language at or even beyond his/her current level of competence?
  6. SCAFFOLDING: Are learning tasks modelled and mediated? Are interventions timely and supportive, and calibrated to take account of the learner’s emerging capacities?
  7. FEEDBACK: Do users get focused and informative feedback on their comprehension and production, including feedback on error?
  8. INTERACTION: Is there provision for the user to collaborate and interact with other users (whether other learners or proficient speakers) in the target language?
  9. AUTOMATICITY: Does the tool provide opportunities for massed practice, and in conditions that replicate conditions of use? Are practice opportunities optimally spaced?
  10. CHUNKS: Does the tool encourage/facilitate the acquisition and use of formulaic language?
  11. PERSONALIZATION: Does the tool encourage the user to form strong personal associations with the material?
  12. FLOW: Is the tool sufficiently engaging and challenging to increase the likelihood of sustained and repeated use? Are its benefits obvious to the user?

Is it better than a teacher?

This list is very provisional: consider it work in progress. But it does replicate a number of the criteria that have been used to evaluate educational materials generally (e.g. Tomlinson 2011) and educational technologies specifically (e.g. Kervin and Derewianka 2011). At the same time, the questions might also provide a framework for comparing and contrasting the learning power of self-access technology with that of more traditional, teacher-mediated classroom instruction. Of course, the bottom line is: does the tool (app, program, learning platform etc) do the job any better than a trained teacher on their own might do?

Any suggestions for amendments and improvements would be very welcome!


Breen, M. P. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’, republished in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. & Norris, J. (eds) 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Low.

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kervin, L. & Derewianka, B. (2011) ‘New technologies to support language learning’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. (2000) ‘Classroom SLA research and second language teaching’. Applied Linguistics, 21/4, 431-462.

Long, M.H. (2011) ‘Methodological principles for language teaching’. In Long, M.H. & Doughty, C. (eds) The Handbook of Language Teaching, Oxford: Blackwell.

Muñoz, C. (ed.) (2012). Intensive Exposure Experiences in Second Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Segalowitz, N. (2003) ‘Automaticity and second languages.’ In Doughty, C.J. & Long, M.H, (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Segalowitz, N. (2010) Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency. London: Routledge.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2015) ‘SLA research and L2 pedagogy: misapplications and questions of relevance.’ Language Teaching, 48/1.

Swain, M. (1995) ‘Three functions of output in second language learning’, in Cook, G., & Seidlhofer, B. (eds) Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Studies in Honour of H.G.W. Widdowson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Brooks, L. & Tocalli-Beller, A. (2003) ‘Peer-peer dialogue as a means of second language learning’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 23: 171-185.

Tomlinson, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: principles and procedures of materials development,’ in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds) 2007. Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This is a revised version of a post that first appeared on the eltjam site:  http://eltjam.com/how-could-sla-research-inform-edtech/


F is for Flow

30 05 2010

Ozbek, the publisher’s rep, got on to the subject of ‘flow’. He was driving me from the airport into the centre of Istanbul, and it turned out that he was currently researching a Masters dissertation on motivation. He was attracted by the idea that intrinsic motivation is located in the present moment, and reaches a peak when you are so absorbed in a task that time seems to slow down or even to stop altogther (akin to what the art critic Michael Fried calls ‘presentness’, as in “Presentness is grace”).  This is also what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.  It is the kind of ‘peak experience’ often reported by artists or sportspeople, when there is a perfect match between performance challenge and available skill. Here’s how a world-class figure skater describes a typical flow experience (from Csikszentmihalyi 1993):

I knew every single moment; in fact I even remember going down into a jump and this is awful, but thinking, “Oh gosh, this is so real!  I’m so clear in my thoughts.”  There was just a real clarity to it all… I felt such control of everything, every little movement, I was very aware, you know, like what was on my hand, I could feel my rings, I could feel everything, and I felt I had control of anything (p. 182).

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow experiences have the following characteristics:

1. they have concrete goals and manageable rules.

2. they make it possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities

3. they provide clear information about how well we are doing

3. they screen out distractions and make concentration possible

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993: xiv)

I had read about flow in the 1990s, and had been attracted by the notion that a task can be intrinsically motivating when one’s available skills are perfectly calibrated with the task’s degree of challenge.  The alternatives, such as too much challenge, or too little, are likely to result in either anxiety or boredom.

'Flow' as opportunity matched with capability (from van Lier 1996)

Appearing as it did around the same time as the popularization of task-based learning, the theory seemed to offer an elegant rubric for the design and management of second-language learning tasks.  The theory suggested that good tasks should stretch learners, pushing them beyond their immediate ‘comfort zone’, while at the same time providing them with sufficient support so as not to induce anxiety.  But since then Csikszentmihalyi’s theory seems to have lost traction, so I was intrigued to hear my Turkish friend (in gridlocked traffic that was the antithesis of flow!) update me on a couple of recent studies (copies of which he subsequently sent me) that have rehabilitated the notion of flow.

One of these – (Egbert 2003) – reports a study in which students rated their experience of various classroom tasks (such as reading aloud, group discussion, etc). The one task that seemed to have induced the greatest degree of flow, based on self-report data, was one in which the students (all US high-school students of Spanish) interacted freely in a chatroom discussion with Spanish-speaking contemporaries. The researchers concluded that tasks which are most conducive to flow are those in which the participants’ perceptions of challenge, control, and interest are optimal.

This leads me to wonder if the concept of flow applies, not only to learning, but also to teaching. That is to say, do teachers experience flow?  Of course, “flow” – in a slightly different sense – is a concept that has often been invoked by educators to capture a desirable quality of classroom management. For example, in a study of the metaphors that one teacher employed when describing her teaching, Munby (1986) noted the constant use of the metaphor of the “lesson as moving object”. E.g. “I keep it rolling all the time”, “I seem to move along real well with that class” etc. Flow, in this sense, is a function of having well rehearsed classroom routines, and it typically distinguishes the teaching of experienced teachers from the rather stop-start nature of novice teaching.

But, flow – in the optimal experience sense – is surely something more than just being a good manager. If so, what characterizes it, what kinds of teachers experience it, and what are its preconditions? And what might all this suggest for teacher education and development?


Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. NY: Harper Row.

– 1993. The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. NY: Harper Row.

Egbert, J. 2003. ‘A study of Flow Theory in the foreign language classroom’. The Modern Language Journal, 87/4.

Munby, H. 1986. ‘Metaphor in the thinking of teachers: An exploratory study’. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 18/2.

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy & Authenticity. Harlow: Longman.