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Review of  Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research

Reviewer: Han Luo
Book Title: Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research
Book Author: Rod Ellis Natsuko Shintani
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 25.4597

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The goal of this book is to explore how SLA theory and research can inform language pedagogy. As argued by the authors, there are two ways to achieve this goal. One way is to review SLA theory and research and then apply the findings to language pedagogy. The other way is to start with common pedagogical problems, techniques or practices and then evaluate these in light of SLA theory and research. This book mainly adopts the second approach, namely, examination of language pedagogy through the lens of SLA.

The whole book consists of five parts: introduction, language pedagogy and SLA from an external perspective, language pedagogy and SLA from an internal perspective, learner differences, and conclusion. The external view of language pedagogy sees teaching in terms of the overall approach, curricular goals, materials, classroom activities, and methodological procedures, which are evident in the teacher’s guides. An external view typically describes what and how to teach. The internal view of language pedagogy treats teaching as an interactional event. An internal view focuses on the classroom talk essential for learning to take place. Discussions on language pedagogy and SLA from the two contrasting perspectives constitute the main focus of the book.

Part I of this book has one chapter, which gives a brief yet insightful historical survey of SLA, examining the development of SLA over the past five decades and outlining the key issues and findings in this field. Based on this review, the authors identify a set of general principles for instructed second language acquisition, which are used as reference to evaluate the pedagogical issues discussed in the rest of the book. These principles include: 1) instruction needs to ensure that learners develop a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence; 2) instruction needs to ensure that learners focus on meaning; 3) instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form; 4) instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge; 5) instruction needs to take into account the order and sequence of acquisition; 6) successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input; 7) successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output; 8) the opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency; 9) instruction needs to take into account individual differences in learners; 10) instruction needs to take into account the fact that there is a subjective aspect to learning a new language; 11) in assessing learners’ L2 proficiency it is important to examine free as well as controlled production.

The five chapters in Part II examine a number of pedagogical constructs that represent the external perspective in reference to SLA research. Chapter 2 investigates the method construct and particularly evaluates the Audiolingual Method and Communicative Language Teaching against the eleven general principles that SLA offers. The authors conclude that individual methods need to be subjected to evaluation both theoretically in terms of SLA research and empirically through comparative method studies. Chapter 3 examines three types of linguistic syllabuses: grammatical syllabuses, lexical syllabuses, and notional syllabuses, which are based on the assumption that learners will learn what they are taught. After reviewing the SLA research on how the learners’ interlanguage develops, the authors argue that this assumption is not compatible with how learners acquire a second language. However, they point out that linguistic syllabuses could assist in teaching explicit L2 knowledge. Chapter 4 is devoted to explicit instruction. This chapter starts with pedagogical accounts of explicit language instruction as stated in the teacher’s guides, summarizes SLA perspectives on explicit language instruction, and evaluates the pedagogical claims in light of SLA findings. SLA research gives clear support to explicit instruction, but the assumptions underlying some of the established pedagogical practices need to be questioned. Chapter 5 examines the effectiveness of comprehension-based and production-based approaches to language teaching. Teacher manuals and grammar teaching materials favor production-based instruction over comprehension-based instruction, but SLA theory and research lend support to both approaches and show that both types have the specific characteristics that are important for acquisition. Chapter 6 discusses how SLA has informed task-based language teaching. Task-based language teaching has been supported and advanced by three SLA theories, namely, Long’s (1991) “focus on form” in interaction, Skehan’s (1998) cognitive theory of L2 learning, and Robinson’s (2001) Cognition Hypothesis. A task-based approach to language teaching accords with SLA theory and research, but it is not easy to implement.

Part III adopts an internal view of language pedagogy and views teaching as interaction. The four chapters in this part explore pedagogical issues related to the process of classroom communication with reference to SLA.

Chapter 7 investigates the role of input in language pedagogy and SLA. “Input” is typically not treated as a key concept in teacher manuals, in which discussions of input tend to be embedded in constructs such as authentic materials, teacher talk, and extensive reading. In contrast, input is viewed as the most important concept in SLA. The concept of input is essential in many SLA theories including Incidental Hypothesis (Schmit, 1994), Frequency Hypothesis (Hatch & Wagner-Gough, 1976), the Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1985), and the Noticing Hypothesis (Schmit, 2001). SLA research has also investigated input, comprehension, and learning extensively. In line with SLA theory and research, the authors have evaluated relevant pedagogical issues and suggested ways in which SLA insights might be utilized pedagogically.

Chapter 8 discusses the construct of interaction and its role in language teaching. “Interaction” has figured in teacher guides in the form of four aspects of teaching: the teaching of speaking, learner participation in the classroom, small group work, and classroom management, which represents a restricted view of the role of interaction in language teaching. As the authors have argued, all teaching is interaction. Two major theoretical paradigms have investigated the role of interaction in SLA, the cognitive-interactionist view and the sociocultural view. The former views interaction as triggering internal processing while the latter sees interaction as the site where learning occurs. These two approaches are not contradictory but complementary, which together deepens our understanding of the role of interaction in language pedagogy.

Chapter 9 examines the value of teachers and students using the L1 in the L2 classroom. Based on a review of positions stated in many teaching methods and teacher guides, teachers and educators seem to have reached a consensus that teachers and learners should strive for maximal use of the L2 if not totally avoiding the use of L1. SLA theory and research support this view in the sense that successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. However, SLA research has also demonstrated the positive aspect of L1 use when positive L1 transfer facilitates acquisition and when L1 is used as a communicative resource. Thus, the debate regarding the use of L1 is not likely to end, and more research needs to be conducted on the actual effects of the actual classroom use of L1 on L2 learning.

The topic of Chapter 10 is corrective feedback, an aspect of instruction that attracts equal attention from teachers and SLA researchers. The authors first give a review of corrective feedback in language pedagogy by answering five questions: 1) should learners’ errors be corrected? 2) when should learners’ errors be corrected? 3) which errors should be corrected? 4) how should errors be corrected? and 5) who should do the correcting? They then examine three theoretical positions (i.e., Universal Grammar-based, cognitive-interactionist, and sociocultural accounts) on corrective feedback in SLA and look at some studies that provide evidence of the effectiveness of corrective feedback in promoting acquisition. The five questions are then reexamined in the light of the SLA research and the chapter concludes with nine guidelines regarding the role of corrective feedback in language teaching.

Chapter 11 constitutes the only chapter of Part III of the book, which is devoted to individual learner differences. The pedagogic literature identifies a large number of individual learner factors such as age, personality, motivation, anxiety and so on. There are three major ways for addressing individual differences in language pedagogy: selecting learners, catering for differences, and promoting receptivity. Based on SLA research, the authors advise that catering for individual differences is not just a matter of choosing instructional materials, but a matter of engaging fully with the students through interaction.

Chapter 12 is the concluding chapter of the book. In this chapter, the authors restate the goal of the book, clarify why they choose to adopt the present approach, and summarize the major findings. While acknowledging that applying SLA to language pedagogy could be a possibility, the authors believe exploring language pedagogy through SLA has more advantages in order to make SLA theory and research meaningful to teachers.


The biggest asset of this book lies in its innovative efforts in bridging language pedagogy and SLA theory and research. In reality, SLA theory and research makes minimal attempt to be accessible to teachers, so busy teachers are typically not informed of the developments and findings in SLA. This book starts with commonly held views and practices in language pedagogy and evaluates them through reference to SLA theory and research, which not only familiarizes teachers with the findings of SLA, but more importantly stimulates the teachers to think to what extent their teaching accords with how L2 learners learn.

Another outstanding strength of this book stems from its readability, which could be further attributed to its high quality of writing, clear organization, and friendly design. Except for the first and the last chapters, every chapter in the rest of the book starts with pedagogical accounts of a given topic, reviews SLA perspectives with respect to this topic, re-examines the pedagogical accounts through the lens of SLA, and concludes the topic with insightful comments with teachers in mind. At the end of each chapter, a number of discussion questions are provided to review the content and stimulate further investigation. It is almost impossible for one to get lost in reading this book as all the arguments are clearly presented and all the points are well organized. If one does not intend to read the whole book but just needs to find reference to a topic relevant to teaching, such as corrective feedback, one could just go to that chapter and get everything he or she needs.

The high level of clarity of this book is also striking, which is in a large part related to the authors’ talent in categorizing complicated concepts. Bridging language pedagogy and SLA is a complex task, but the authors suggest that the task could be approached in two different ways: applying SLA to language pedagogy and exploring language pedagogy through SLA. Such a division not only helps the authors justify the approach adopted in this book, but also helps readers conceptualize the relationship between SLA and language pedagogy. In addition, the numerous issues and topics that have figured in pedagogic literature have been categorized into those taking an external view of language teaching and those taking an internal view of language teaching. I believe such a categorization is seminal and essential as it not only leads to a clear organization of the book, but also deepens readers’ understanding of language pedagogy itself.

Because of its focus on examining language pedagogy through SLA theory and research, this book is a very useful resource for language teachers who intend to evaluate their own ideas about teaching and to see to what extent their teaching is compatible with how second language learners learn. This book could also be an excellent textbook for M.A. students majoring in foreign language education. However, teachers who are looking for a simple and clear-cut guide to best teaching practices may find this book disappointing, as the purpose of this book is not to provide simplistic generalizations, but to stimulate in-depth thinking of language teaching through SLA theory and research. In addition, teachers who have not received training in SLA and language pedagogy may find this book challenging to read as it aims to bridge the theoretical discourses of the two fields.

Finally, this book defines language pedagogy as how language-as-a-system can be taught. In other words, language teaching primarily aims at developing the linguistic competence necessary for L2 communication. Thus, teaching culture or development of cultural awareness, which figure as important and essential in many pedagogical frameworks, is not discussed. Many teachers may find this book inadequate in addressing issues occurring in their teaching.


Hatch, E., and Wagner-Gough, J. (1976). Explaining sequence and variation in second language acquisition. “Papers in Second Language Acquisition, Language Learning (Special Issue, 4)”, 39-57.

Krashen, S. (1985). “The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications”. London and New York: Longman.
Long, M. H. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In K. De Bot, R. Ginsberg, and C. Kramsch (Eds.), “Foreign language research in crosscultural perspective” (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Robinson, P. (2001). Task complexity, task difficulty, and task production: exploring interactions in a componential framework. “Applied Linguistics”, 22(1), 27-57.

Schmidt, R. (1994). Deconstructing consciousness in search of useful definitions for applied linguistics. “AILA Review” 11, 11-26.

Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (Eds.), “Cognition and second language instruction” (pp. 3-32). Cambridge University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998). “A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Han Luo joined Northwestern University as a Chinese lecturer in the Fall of 2011. She received a PhD in Foreign Language Education with a specialization in the teaching of Chinese from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011, and a PhD in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics from Beijing Foreign Studies University in 2007. Before coming to the U.S., she taught English and linguistics at the Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing for 6 years. Her research interests include second language acquisition, teaching Chinese as a foreign language, foreign language learning anxiety, Chinese linguistics, cognitive linguistics, and heritage language education.

Format: Hardback
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