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Instructed Second Language Acquisition: A Literature Review

Publication Details

The purpose of this literature review is to examine theory and research that has addressed what constitutes effective pedagogy for the acquisition of a second language (L2) in a classroom context. In other words, the review seeks to answer the question: How can instruction best ensure successful language learning?

Author(s): Author: Professor R. Ellis

Date Published: 2005

Introduction

The purpose of this literature review is to examine theory and research that has addressed what constitutes effective pedagogy for the acquisition of a second language (L2) in a classroom context. In other words, the review seeks to answer the question: How can instruction best ensure successful language learning?

This is not an easy question to answer, both because there are many competing theories offering very different perspectives on how instruction can promote language learning and because the empirical research does not always afford clear cut findings. We will endeavour to reflect the different theoretical viewpoints and findings in the review. To do otherwise would be to misrepresent the current state of research in this field.

However, in order to avoid the pitfalls of complete relativity, we will attempt to identify a number of general principles, based on theory and research, which we believe can provide a guideline for designers of language curricula and for classroom teachers. In proposing these principles we do not wish to adopt a positivist stance. We do not believe that the research findings to date provide definitive specifications for language instruction. Rather we wish to suggest, in line with Stenhouse’s (1975) arguments, that the principles be viewed as ‘provisional specifications’ best operationalised and then tried out by teachers in their own teaching contexts.

The review begins with an examination of the learning theories that underlie three mainstream approaches to language teaching (Section A). From there, it moves on to consider empirical studies of classroom teaching and learning (Section B). Given the vast amount of research that has taken place over the last three decades, the research considered will necessarily be selective, focusing on key theoretical claims and seminal studies. These sections provide the basis for the identification of a set of general principles (Section C). The review concludes with a discussion of how the research can best be utilized by practitioners (Section D).

Inevitably in a review of this nature, readers will be confronted with a number of technical terms. In some cases, where they are of central importance these will be defined in the main text. However, in cases where they are less central, they are defined in the glossary. All terms in bold print can be found in the glossary.

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