Just the Tip of the Iceberg!
Second Language Acquisition Theories.
Compiled by Deborah Coker
Revised for this in-service
Our Motivation
As the nation’s population has become inundated with
immigrants from many different nations speaking many
different languages and dialects, educators have sought
instructional practices that will expedite English Language
acquisition in a practical, efficient, and meaningful manner.
A plethora of theories have evolved and they can be
broken down into four major categories:
(Diaz-Rico, 2008)
Constructivist (Postmodern Techniques of Knowledge)
Schools of Thought:
• Behaviorist (p. 37) “Use behavioral
training for accurate pronunciation
and rote memory of information
such as object and motor
• Humanistic (p.51) “Reduce tension
and support a positive emotional
state in the learner.
(Diaz-Rico, 2008)
• Cognitivist (p.41) “Align learning
with the brain and its natural ways
of knowledge acquisition.”
• Postmodern Techniques of
Constructivist (p.65) “Leave behind
one-size-fits-all methods and
negotiate activities and objectives
based on the needs of the learner,
using knowledge of learning styles
and multiple intelligences, and
encouraging meta-cognition and
self-reflection in order to increase
students’ self knowledge and
capacity for making conscious
Behaviorist Approach
Major strategies used in the behaviorist approach:
• B.F.Skinner’s Experimental Behaviorism: “Actions followed by an
immediate positive effect (reward) tend to be repeated, and actions followed by an immediate
negative effect (punishment) tend to be discontinued.” (p.38)
• The Audio-lingual Method: “Students developed correct language habits by
repetitious training, often using technology such as tape recordings in language laboratories.”
• Asher’s Total Physical Response: “Based on the association between
language and body movement.”(p.39)There is a shaping of response and external
rewards are faded. Great for those at the non-verbal stage of language acquisition.
• Direct Teaching and Mastery Learning:" This type of learning
emphasizes explicit instructional objectives for students and promotes the learning of facts,
sequenced steps, or rules.” (p. 39)
(Diaz-Rico, p.38-39)
Cognitive Approach
*Provided the theoretical basis for the Natural Approach.
Major strategies used in the Cognitive approach
Chomsky’s Generative Grammar: “Language is learned through
Krashen’s Monitor Model: “Krashen considered acquisition (an unconscious
Information-Processing Theories: “The sensory register
Alternative Theories of Mental Functioning: “As information
reinforcement and an active language processor, the language acquisition device (LAD) which generates
rules through the unconscious acquisition of grammar.”(p.41)
process that occurs when language is used for real communication) more important that learning (which
involves “knowing about” language and its rules) in achieving fluency, and deemphasized direct instruction
of syntax rules.” (p.41)
(input/recognition), short-term memory (information encoding), and long-term memory (storage) work
together during learning.” (p.43)”Perception is the process by which the sensory register receives and briefly
holds environmental stimuli, either as images or sound patterns, and selects input for further processing.”
(p. 43)
is received, the brain creates a pattern across the net, adjusted over time by repeated exposure.” (p.45)
(Diaz-Rico, p.41-48)
Other Universal Grammar Theories
The Competition Model by Felix (1985): Children’s learning process
follows a Language-Specific Cognitive System while adults use a Problem
Solving System. The challenge arises when the two systems compete in an
adult who is trying to master a new language.
Dulay and Burt’s Creative Construction Theory (1974): Children learn
as they apply ‘universal innate mechanisms’. These mechanisms allow them
to reconstruct rules for the new language as they hear it used. After
listening for an extended period of time, students are then able to apply
what they have been studying.
(Overview of Second Language Acquisition Theory, May, 2003
Krashen’s Monitor Model
The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis (1981): This idea is similar to Chomsky’s LAD. He
The Natural Order Hypothesis: “Language rules are acquired in a predictable order, and certain grammatical
The Monitor Hypothesis: “The mind employs an editor, the monitor, which scans utterances for accuracy in order to
The Input Hypothesis: “Learners acquire language by “intaking” and understanding language that is a “little beyond”
The Affective Filter Hypothesis: “An individual’s emotions can directly interfere or assist in the learning of a
thought acquisition outweighed learning when it comes to achieving fluency and he de-emphasize direct
instruction of syntax rules.
rules of the language tend to be acquired before the others.”(p.42)
make corrections” (p.42) This can only happen if enough wait time is allowed by the instructor
their current level of competence. (Krashen, 1981) (p. 2)
new language…Speaking out in a new language can result in anxiety, embarrassment, or anger. These negative emotions can
create a kind of filter that blocks the learner’s ability to process new or difficult words.”( p.3)
(Overview of Second Language Acquisition Theory, May, 2003)
Continuum of Learning
*Krashen continued
A dominant philosophy shared by many theorists,
specifically those in the Naturalist Approach, is that
language is acquired through predictable and sequential
stages of language development.
Stage I: The Silent/Receptive or Preproduction Stage
Stage II: The Early Production Stage
Stage III: The Speech Emergence Stage
Stage IV: The intermediate Language Proficiency Stage
Stage V: The Advanced Language Proficiency
(Overview of Second Language Acquisition Theory, May, 2003)& (Diaz-Rico, p.43)
Information Processing Theory in
• State the purpose
• Short-Term Memory (STM) receives patterns of
images and sounds
• Enhance STM by playing short-term memory
• Long-Term Memory (LTM) is boosted by using
a schema (structure for organizing information
or concepts) combined with scripts (which
stores a common behavioral sequence).
(Diaz-Rico, p.44)
Ways to Enhance Students’
Practices for Teachers
Variation in properties of written or
spoken words: intensity, pitch, size,
color, or novelty
Use various colored markers on the
board; teach words that have an
unusual sound; use volume change-up
(soft, soft, loud, soft)
Manipulating posture, gestures, and
Use accompanying gestures to teach
action words.
Use of emotion: vivid mental images,
Use reading material that quickens the
Use of incongruity
“The only person at the scene missing
was the policeman.”
(Diaz-Rico, p.44)
Ways to Enhance Storage and Retrieval of
Information from Long Term Memory:
Separating essential from non-essential details and
focusing on meaning
Adding meaning to new information by connecting new
with existing knowledge to increase retrieval cues
Placing new information in a structure that serves as a
guide for retrieval
Learning physical or emotional cues connected with
information to enhance retrieval cues
Logic, cues, and
Repeated acts of storage and retrieval
(Diaz-Rico, p. 45)
Adding structure to information to assist recall
Using structure to enhance recall rather than rote memory
Alternative Theories of
Mental Functioning:
Brain Compatible Learning is a descriptor that encompasses several
additional theories. “It helps to reconceptualize teaching by taking into
consideration how the brain learns.” (D’Arcangelo, 1998; Jensen, 1998; Wolfe & Sorgen,
Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner (1983): There are eight different
intelligences (linguistic, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal,
intrapersonal, and natural) when used help to lower affective filters.
Emotional Intelligence by Salovey and Mayer (1990) and popularized
Goleman (1998): Made up of five competencies: self awareness, self regulation,
motivation, social skills, and empathy.
Suggestopedia by Lozanov (1982): “Pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar are
assimilated and learned intuitively.” (p. 47) After relaxed and supportive instruction make
connections through what Lozanov calls “elaborations”. These are things like reading
dialogues, singing songs, playing games, and having conversations.
(Diaz-Rico, p. 47)
Behaviorist vs. Cognitivist
Component of
Belief about the mind:
•The mind is a blank slate.
•All minds are basically alike.
•The mind is an active organizer
•Brains vary, with multiple
intelligences and learning styles
Goal Setting:
•Teacher plans and sets goals.
•Students participate in planning
and goal setting.
•Reward is motivator.
•Learning is a motivator.
Teaching Styles:
•Teacher teaches his/her way;
one “best” way.
•Teacher teaches with variety; no
one “best” way.
Content of Curriculum:
•Students are taught “what”.
•Students are taught “what” and
Assessment: who does it?
•Teacher assesses.
•Students are actively involved in
peer and self-assessment.
Assessment: what is
•Product is important.
•Product and process are
Role of Culture:
•Culture is irrelevant.
•Culture is the basis for social
interaction patterns: learning
results from social interaction.
(Diaz-Rico, p.49)
Humanistic Approach
Here we see theories of language
acquisition evolve once again, this
time, to combine cognitive and
affective learning philosophies.
“Positive emotional factors such as
self-esteem, motivation, and
proactive attitudes help language
acquisition take place.” (p. 51)
(Diaz-Rico, p. 51-57)
to foster:
to defuse:
Implementation of the Humanistic
Ways to Reduce Student Anxiety:
(Adapted from Woolfolk, 2007)
Monitor activities to reduce undue pressure.
Give students in competitive tasks a reasonable chance to succeed.
Avoid making anxious students perform in front of large groups.
Give examples or models of how the task is done when starting a new type
of task.
• Teach skills explicitly and provide study guides.
• Vary assignments over different modes of language learning.
• Energize students by giving them a chance to be physically active.
(Diaz-Rico, p. 55)
Postmodern Techniques of
This is the latest incarnation of Language
Acquisition Theory!
There are four different components that make up the postmodern
techniques of knowledge acquisition (constructivism, intercultural
positioning, metarational thinking, and creation of meaning) .
This model is interactive. In addition to adding cooperative and engaging
activities, instructors create “mindful and “cultureful” learning”. (p.65)
The primary language and culture of our students will become imbedded in
our instruction to engage learners and facilitate their acquisition of new
knowledge. Using this as our foundation, our students will construct new
meanings, connections, and applications for their learning!
(Diaz-Rico, p.65)
The Path of Inter-Cultural
Learner Strategies
Strategies influenced
by institution
Strategies influenced
by socio-cultural
Time to Process
Now, please turn to your neighbor and share…
• any ah-ha’s that may have occurred to you
• which approach do you find you have leaned toward
• what processing strategies are you most likely to
• How can you create real world situations to create the
need for your students to actively communicate?
Looking back over the different theories it becomes abundantly clear that our
current practices are a composite, a mosaic reminiscent of the many cultures
we see in our classrooms..
We have definitely left the behaviorist techniques in the past in favor of those
that include cognition.
These methodologies were many and varied, creating a wealth of strategies to
teach not just ESL students, but all students.
Jenson’s arguments in favor of emotional intelligence are validated by the
humanist approach. May we all be lucky enough to be nurtured by those who
build us up and believe in us.
And finally, we step into the 21st century with our Postmodern Techniques of
Knowledge. By empowering our second language learners with language and
pride and ownership of their primary culture we are truly becoming a global
Butler-Pascoe, M. & Wiburg, K.(2003). Technology and teaching english language
learners, Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Diaz-Rico, L.(2008). Strategies for teaching english learners, (Second Ed.) Boston:
Pearson Education, Inc.
Gitsaki, C. (n.d.).Second language acquisition theories: Overview and evaluation.
Retrieved May 17th, 2008, from Web site:
Greenberg, L.J.(2004). Language acquisition. Retrieved May 17th , 2008, from Web
site: http://earthenrenewal.org/secondlang.htm
Overview of second language acquisition theory (2003). Retrieved May 17th,2008,
from Web site: http://www.nwrel.org/request/2003may/overview.html
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2004). Standards and other
initiatives, Retrieved October 11, 2004, from Web Site:

Language Acquisition