Reading and Second Language Learners

Chapter One Language Acquisition and the Language Learner

Download 0.52 Mb.
Size0.52 Mb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7

Chapter One

Language Acquisition and the Language Learner

One of the fundamental prerequisites for reading is the knowledge of language. The purpose of this chapter is to establish an understanding of how both first and second languages develop. Our focus is on children who are entering the public schools and whose primary task is learning how to read. If a child is a healthy native-English speaker, he or she comes to school with a reasonable oral proficiency in English (as defined by a command of grammar and a vocabulary of several thousand words). In contrast, a child whose first language is not English enters kindergarten with a set of reading readiness “tools” that do not serve the child well in the task of learning how to read in English. The child, therefore, needs to learn the English language at a high proficiency level so that he or she can engage in pursuit of learning to the fullest. Acquiring a language is a process that is determined by two principle components: the brain and the learning environment. Teachers of all children must create optimal conditions for learning for all; however, the process of creating an effective learning environment for non-English speakers is substantially more complicated and contains more variables.

In this chapter, we provide background information that is essential for educators who are responsible for creating appropriate language-rich environments for English-language learners (ELLs) who are learning how to read in English. In doing so, we first discuss several fundamentals of the process of acquisition of the first language. Building on this information, we then address the issues of second-language acquisition and individual learner characteristics that deeply influence this process. Return to Table of Contents

Section One: How Does First Language Develop?

Our understandings about the language development process have benefited from the efforts of many researchers, some of whose work is considered classic in the field of applied linguistics. Among these researchers is Eric H. Lenneberg (1967), who presents a theory about the first language acquisition process that starts at birth,

In the mechanism of language we find a natural extension of very general principles of organization of behavior which are biologically adapted to a highly specific ethnological function. With maturation, the neonate begins to organize the perceptually available stimuli surrounding him and also to organize the movements of his muscles. Sensory data become grouped into as yet undifferentiated, global classes of group patterns, and these, subsequently, become differentiated into more specific patterns. Both the perceived patterns and the self-produced patterns become organized or grouped in functional categories, and hierarchies of categories. Members of a particular category are functionally equivalent because they either elicit an identical response or they serve one and the same function within the overall structure of a particular behavior pattern. It is these general principles of differentiation and categorization that appear in specialized form in verbal behavior. They influence the organization of perceived material as well as the organization of the motor output… Thus the characteristics of phrase-structure (as described by phrase-markers) appear as the natural outcome of an application of the differentiation principle to the acoustic patterns, called language. (1967, p.324-325)

Lenneberg believes that if children fail to acquire the first language by the time they are twelve, due to some severe illness or congenital disability, they then rapidly lose this capacity to acquire the language behavior at all. This is the critical period when the language acquisition cycle is completed, in that children have acquired all of the structures of the language (which in English culminates in the mastery of the conditional tense and the passive voice).4 McLaughlin (1978) summarizes Lenneberg’s critical period argument,

[N]atural language acquisition by mere exposure can take place only during the critical period, that is between the ages of 2 and puberty. The brain has not developed the capacities it needs for language acquisition earlier, and after puberty the brain has lost its cerebral plasticity because of the completion of the process of cerebral dominance, or the lateralization of the language function. (p.48)

This critical period, or time of plasticity, is frequently discussed in language acquisition studies when it pertains to speaking a second language like a native speaker. An adult can learn a second language, often through study, to a native proficiency, but after this critical time the learner will often speak with an accent.

Among others who argue that language learning is natural for children because they are biologically well prepared for it is Chomsky (1959). He proposed a theory of Universal Grammar according to which all children possess innately a language acquisition device, or the capacity to acquire language. This theory of Universal Grammar is based on the premise that there are general principles that are common to all languages and that a child has the capacity to acquire the entire vocabulary, the entire morphology, the entire syntax and most of the phonology of a given language.

Chomsky’s theory also supposes that children learn the language of their social environment out of their need to communicate and interact with others. This theory of a child’s natural ability to acquire a language in a social context is elaborated on by Klein (1986). He states that the first language of a child is learned in and through social interaction and that this acquisition is

…a spontaneous learning, which is based on meaningful and purposeful communication with speakers of the target language.5 The learner is oriented not to the form but to the content and effect of his utterances, remaining unaware of the linguistic rules and structures used in the process. (p.43)

The first-language development occurs when there is language input in a social context. Klein supports the notion of language acquisition through social contact by stating,

What makes learning possible from the sounds that are received is the information received in parallel to the linguistic input: the learner must know who is speaking to whom, when and where, he must be able to watch the accompanying body language and he must note the reactions of the listener. (p.44)

Susan Ervin-Tripp (1973) states that a child’s linguistic tasks are complex in discovering the sound units and the rules for combining the sounds, knowing which sounds can or cannot be combined in a language and attaching sound to referents. “A child cannot acquire the linguistically important features of speech unless a significant portion of the sounds heard make reference to concrete objects, relations, and events to which the child already attends” (p.67). The child vocalizes and experiments with sounds of the language, in what is known as the language of the crib. In doing so, he or she regularizes or generalizes about all forms before experimenting with any irregular forms. The child does this to find order in the communication.

Return to Table of Contents

Section Two: How Does Second Language Develop?

Learning a second language is a very complex process. In spite of intensive research in second-language acquisition during the past 30 years, we are left with numerous unanswered questions and calls for further research. Nevertheless, there are a number of theories that are supported by pertinent empirical data, enabling us to present a framework for the second language acquisition process in this section. In doing so, we first discuss the foundational theories and research regarding second-language development. We then present the four most highly recognized models of second-language development.

Foundational Theories

Initial studies in second-language acquisition come from the early 1970s. Many linguists examined the nature of linguistic input, or language learning environments, in order to determine how language learning takes place, as well as to determine the reasons for, and the nature of, the variation of the output (i.e., the learner’s language). Others focused on comparisons of structures in the first language (L1) with developing structures in a second language (L2) in the speech of children. These studies were important because, in addition to the information they provided about linguistic input, they provided information about the child-parent or learner-teacher interaction. The basic question that is central to all the studies of child second-language acquisition of this period is: “What is it in the child’s head that governs or guides what he learns?” (Dulay & Burt, 1975, p.23).
Creative Construction

Since researchers could not literally study what is inside the child’s head, the studies concentrated on the children’s production of language and the linguistic environment necessary for the process of L2 acquisition. Although much of the information provided by the research is beyond the scope of this paper, we do report that the findings yielded initial evidence about the similarity of the L1 and L2 aqcuisition processes (Brown, 1973; Cook, 1969; Ervin-Tripp, 1974; Ravem, 1974; Slobin, 1973). In addition, these studies provided evidence of what Dulay and Burt (1974) called creative construction when describing the process of children’s acquisition of English as their second language.

Basing their work on Lenneberg’s innate ability theory of children, Dulay and Burt concluded that it is during this process of creative construction that children actively and gradually

reconstruct rules for speech they hear, guided by universal innate mechanisms which cause them to formulate certain types of hypotheses about the language system being acquired until the mismatch between what they are exposed to and what they produce is resolved. (1974, p.37)

This process is called creative since nobody other than the learner uses the actual forms present in the learner’s developing second language at any given time. McLaughlin (1978) furthered this discussion of the construction of linguistic rules that is believed to be creative. He asserted that this process is creative in that no speaker of the target language models the kind of sentences regularly produced by second-language learners.

In addition to the acquisition process being creative, it is the general consensus of researchers that the L2 acquisition process is also developmental. The language process develops as the child’s brain matures. The process is related to physical maturation as well as to cognitive growth. Physical maturation is sequential, as is language acquisition. This conclusion is particularly important for classroom practitioners who are concerned with accuracy in the emergent speech production of L2 learners, as well as the speed of the process given the pressure of state standards and standardized test scores. It cannot be rushed or given time limits; the learner is preoccupied with getting meaning across and not grammatical accuracy.

Error Analysis

In the late 1970s, several researchers conducted comparative studies on first- and second-language acquisition with an emphasis on the L2 acquisition process. Researchers analyzed the speech of second-language learners and, based on their analyses, many concluded that there are similarities between the two processes. Among the first to speculate about a possible relation between first- and second-language acquisition were Cook (1973), Corder (1967) and Selinker (1972). Corder stresses the importance of differentiating between “mistakes” that are the products of chance circumstances (e.g., memory lapses, physical states and strong emotion) and “errors” which reveal the learner’s underlying knowledge of the language to date, or the learner’s transitional competence. He recommends a linguistic study of a second-language learner’s errors as an indicator of the learner’s testing of the only question that he or she needs to ask: “Are the systems of the new language the same or different from those of the language I know?” (p.161).

Researchers concluded that the errors L2 learners make are similar to the errors of L1 learners. This is seen as an indication that the learners are building the system of L2 grammar rules gradually. Examples of the most common errors include:

  • omission of grammatical morphenes, such as “He hit car;”

  • double marking a semantic feature, as in “She didn’t went back;”

  • regularizing rules (i.e., womans for women);

  • using archiforms as in “I see her yesterday” and “Her dance with my brother;”

  • misordering, or reversal in word order, as in “They are all the time late.” (Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982)

The findings or error analysis research have important implications for teaching practices. As classroom practitioners analyze the errors that a child makes in language structures and vocabulary use the focus should be on the developmental process of language acquisition. The errors that a child produces provide a picture of the child’s growing proficiency and should be used as insight into the instructional needs of the learner. Remember: this process cannot be rushed or give time limits; it needs rich linguistic input and a positive learning environment

The study of the characteristics of the learners’ language output led researchers to point out the dynamic and ever changing nature of the learners’ competence. Corder (1967) calls it “transitional competence,” while Nemser (1971) refers to it as “approximate competence.” These terms attempt to communicate the incomplete nature of the L2 acquisition process, as well as the learner’s progression along an acquisition continuum (Seliger, 1988) from zero competence to near native competence in the target language.

Selinker (1972) proposes the notion of interlanguage, meaning the language that a learner uses in communication that is neither his or her native language (NL) nor the target language (TL), the language that the learner is attempting to acquire. It is actually a third system that is employed while the learner is progressing in the acquisition of the L2 toward native speaker competence in the target language. The learner attempts utterances to express ideas in a target language which are not identical to the utterances that would be produced by a native speaker expressing an identical idea. In developing this hypothesis, Selinker measured the output of individual learners' attempted productions against:

  • utterances in the learner’s native language produced by the learner;

  • interlanguage utterances produced by the learner; and

  • target language utterances produced by native speakers of that TL.

He concluded that this interlanguage, also called “learner-language” system (Sampson & Richards, 1973), is a separate linguistic system. The studies of these researchers reported that:

  • second-language speech rarely conforms to what one expects of native speakers of the target language;

  • interlanguage is not an exact translation of the learner’s native language;

  • interlanguage differs from the target language in systematic ways; and

  • the forms of the utterances produced in the second language by a learner are not random.

The data from research (Selinker, 1972) support the assertion that these forms emerge when the second-language learner is attempting to express meaning in the second language. Selinker makes a special note to teachers, “This important criterion is that the L2 speaker is attempting to express meaning as opposed to practicing structured exercises in a classroom” (p.29). The learner, therefore, needs to be exposed to a lot of natural discourse and have many opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation as opposed to rote-learning.

Selinker also addresses the concept of fossilization. This fossilization is “the linguistic items, rules and subsystems which particular native language learners will tend to keep in their interlanguage relative to a particular TL, no matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation and instruction he receives in the TL” (p.31). Fossilization supposedly occurs in the interlanguage when the learner’s acculturation into the society who speaks the target language ceases. Fossilization also occurs among learners who have “mastered” specific forms in the target language. In varied situations (often in moments of stress, fatigue, anger, or when not enough time is allowed for an answer to be monitored) these learners will backslide, or revert from the target-language norm to the fossilized language forms. This backsliding is not random, nor toward the speaker’s NL, but toward the IL norm.

Selinker noted from his studies four primary aspects of this interlanguage system:

  • the stability over time of certain errors and other surface forms in learner-language systems;

  • the mutual intelligibility that appears to exist among speakers of the same interlanguage;

  • the phenomenon of backsliding or the regular appearance in bilingual speech of fossilized forms that were thought to be eradicated; and

  • the systematicity of the IL at one particular point in time.6

Hakuta (1988) concludes that the process of second-language acquisition is a dynamic, fluid process in which the system of the learner is constantly shifting in a slow and gradual manner either toward the maintenance of an internal consistency within the structures which the learner possesses, or in the direction of an external consistency, where the learner attempts to fit the internal system into what is heard in the input. (p.331)
Linguistic Transfer

Researchers also dedicated a considerable amount of time to the study of linguistic transfer, or the transference of rules that the learner knows from his or her first language to the production of utterances in the second language. They concur that a considerable amount of transfer into L2 occurs, both with regard to the product and the learning process. When the prior knowledge has a negative impact on L2 utterances, the transfer is called interference or negative transfer. Examples include:

  • the omission of grammatical morphemes such as verb endings, noun inflections, articles, and auxiliaries;

  • over generalization; and

  • the use of double markings (Dulay & Burt, 1975).

Dulay and Burt stress the important implications of these findings for the classroom. Since we know that the shape of the learner’s cognitive structure guides the L2 learning process and that children possess the ability to creatively construct a new language, the children need to be immersed in a language learning environment that stresses rich natural communication instead of memorization and rote learning. Emphasis should not be on the form of the L2 but on the child’s ability to get the meaning across. A learner’s errors should not be viewed as “mistakes” but as process on a continuum of acquisition. As has been noted, native speakers also experiment with forms, testing their own hypotheses about the constructs of the language. The interlanguage is the same form of experimentation for the second-language learner. This is one of the basic similarities between the L1 and L2 acquisition processes.
Implications for Educators

These foundational theories have several very important implications for the teachers of ELLs, especially in view of the current emphasis on federal and state standards, standardized test scores and accountability. First, the second-language acquisition process is developmental. The language that is produced by the learner develops in stages which, like physical development, cannot be rushed. Second, language learners' errors provide information about their developing proficiency in the TL, and should not be viewed and scored on a deficiency scale. Assessment data should be compared over time and if acceptable growth is occurring then this progress in student learning should be validated.

Third, testing should emphasize how much an ELL has learned, and not how much the child does not know in comparison to a native-English speaker. Thomas and Collier (1997) note that the standards developed for state and school district performance assessments are based on the typical performance of native-English speakers on these assessments. But because ELLs' lack of English proficiency places them at a disadvantage when taking standardized tests conducted in English, many of these students initially achieve well below this level of typical native-English speaker performance on such assessments (Thomas & Collier, 1997).7 Because of this, while the average native-English speaking student needs to make only 10 months worth of academic progress in each 10-month school year in order to meet these standards, these ELLs must make substantially larger yearly gains in order to "catch up" with their native-English speaking peers. Given this fact, assessment data reflecting such gains should be viewed as positive, irrespective of whether or not the ELL has achieved the performance standards set for native-English speakers.8

Theoretical Models of L2 Acquisition

This section examines four theoretical models of L2 acquisition: Krashen’s model; Cummins’ model; the Prism model; and the Social, linguistic, and cognitive processes model. These models employ the foundational theories discussed above, as well as data from more current research. The models offer teachers a framework for effective classroom instruction.
Krashen’s Model

Stephen Krashen proposed a theoretical model of second-language development that includes five hypotheses (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). The first hypothesis distinguishes between acquired language and learned language in the second-language learning process. He defines the language acquisition process as one that is subconscious and that occurs in a natural environment out of the learner’s need to communicate, much as first-language acquisition. This process is “the unconscious construction of grammar rules by a language learner which takes place (under certain conditions) when the learner hears the language spoken in meaningful contexts and… [is] able to understand the message conveyed by the language he hears” (p.27). Krashen distinguishes the language acquisition process from the language learning process for a second language by stating, “Learning is characterized by conscious attention to structure, verbalization about rules followed, and in the classroom by particular exercises to internalize the matter under consideration” (p.27). This learning involves the formal knowledge of a language, knowledge that is conscious and which can be supported through formal teaching.

His second hypothesis is that there is a natural order to the acquisition process. According to this hypothesis, though not all learners will acquire specific grammatical structures in exactly the same order, certain structures will nevertheless be acquired early and others late. In other words, the order of acquisition is developmental. This hypothesis proved true regardless of the first language of the children learning the second language and concurs with earlier studies by Dulay and Burt (1975).9

Krashen states in his third hypothesis that when a second language is acquired like a first language (i.e., in a stress-free, context rich environment) a silent period occurs. During this period, the learner attends to the sounds of the language and attempts to make sense of the sounds, but typically doesn't produce any linguistic output. In other words, comprehension precedes production.

His fourth hypothesis, the comprehensible input hypothesis, states that we acquire (not learn) language that is slightly beyond the current level of acquired competence. He claims that listening comprehension and reading are the most important skills, especially in an educational situation, and that the receptive language skills must precede the productive skills of speaking and writing. The four basic elements of this hypothesis are:

  • Input relates to acquisition rather than to learning.

  • Acquisition comes by understanding language in context just slightly beyond the current level of competence.

  • Spoken fluency is not taught directly, but gradually emerges.

  • When caregivers talk to an acquirer so that the acquirer understands the message, input automatically contains “i+1” (language beyond the current level), the grammatical structures the acquirer is “ready” to acquire.

His fifth hypothesis, the affective filter hypothesis, concerns the influence on second-language achievement of affective variables such as certain types of motivation and good self-image. A lower filter, including a lower anxiety level, allows the learner to be more open to language input. Also having a good attitude about the language that is being learned will encourage learners to interact more with native speakers of the target language. In doing so, they will receive more natural language input and be more receptive to the more difficult aspects of the language. An expanded discussion of this hypothesis is provided in Section Three of this chapter.
Cummins’ Model

James Cummins developed a model introducing two distinct stages of language proficiency marked by a threshold in L2 acquisition. The first stage involves second-language proficiency in an interpersonal level of communication (termed Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, or BICS). During such communication, language is deeply embedded in context and the language learner is able to rely on non-linguistic information such as gestures, intonation and facial cues to facilitate understanding. The second stage involves the second-language proficiency needed for success in school (termed Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP). Once the learner enters into the dimension of CALP, he or she needs to have mastered higher levels of vocabulary (very often technical in nature), more advanced listening skills, increased reliance on print, and decreased reliance on contextual clues (including nonverbal communication). The tasks the learner is faced with are progressively more cognitively, academically and linguistically challenging. This transitional developmental “moment,” when second-language learners acquire CALP, is the threshold in Cummins' model.

The distinction between these two types of L2 proficiency is of particular importance to educators. When ELLs gain the ability to participate in seemingly effortless communication with their peers, it is often believed that they are ready for mainstreaming. However, as Cummins' model indicates, these children are only displaying Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills. These language skills are simplistic in terms of their linguistic and cognitive characteristics, and should not be considered sufficient for effective functioning within the specialized discourse of the classroom.10

Pauline Gibbons (1991), an Australian researcher, distinguishes the same concepts as the difference between playground language (BICS) and classroom language (CALP).

This playground language includes the language that enables children to make friends, join in games and take part in a variety of day-to-day activities that develop and maintain social contacts. It usually occurs in face-to-face contact, and is thus highly dependent on the physical and visual context, and on gesture and body language. Fluency with this kind of language is an important part of language development, without it a child is isolated from the normal social life of the playground… But playground language is very different from the language that teachers use in the classroom, and from the language that we expect children to learn to use. The language of the playground is not the language associated with learning in mathematics, or social studies, or science. The playground situation does not normally offer children the opportunity to use such language as: “If we increase the angle by 5 degrees, we could cut the circumference into equal parts.” Nor does it normally require language associated with the high order thinking, such as hypothesizing, evaluating, inferring, generalizing, predicting, or classifying. Yet these are the language functions which are related to learning and development of cognition; they occur in all areas of the curriculum, and without them a child’s potential in academic areas cannot be realized. (p.3)

An extension of Cummins’ model can be seen in Table1:1, where Chamot (1981) intertwines Cummins’ threshold hypothesis with Krashen’s monitor hypothesis (distinguishing acquisition from learning) and Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive development. Chamot combines six developmentally sequenced cognitive levels with six language proficiency levels. Each level of the table identifies the internal language skills, the external language skills with the linguistic process, the language proficiency dimension and acquisition learning domain. For example, if a child is at the first level of acquisition of the BICS proficiency dimension, he or she is able to recall (the linguistic process) at the cognitive domain of knowledge. The child has the skills to discriminate and respond to sounds, words, and unanalyzed chunks of listening. The child identifies labels, letters, and phrases in reading. In the child's productive skills he or she can produce single words and formulas and can imitate models. The child has some penmanship and spelling skills, and can write known elements from dictation. This model is useful for teachers because it provides explicit information about the student’s knowledge as well as an invaluable framework for instruction. It is also consistent with the interlanguage theory of Selinker (1972). A threshold is clearly marked on Table 1:1, indicating the transition toward increasing cognitive demands between communicative interpersonal language and academic language.

The Prism Model: Language Acquisition Model for School

The conceptual model of second-language acquisition proposed by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier addresses the language acquisition process ELLs experience during their school years (Thomas & Collier, 1997). This model, which is graphically depicted in Figure 1:1, provides a multidimensional perspective on the English-language acquisition of these students. As can be seen, Thomas and Collier's prism model involves four interdependent components: sociocultural, linguistic, academic and cognitive processes.

The linguistic dimension of this model involves all aspects of the language development process, including first- and second-language acquisition and learning, as well as both oral and written language development. The cognitive dimension represents the subconscious process of cognitive development that begins at birth. Thomas and Collier repeatedly stress that "language and cognitive development go hand in hand" (1997, p.40). Particularly significant is the interrelation between cognitive development and first-language development. "Children who stop cognitive development in L1 before they have reached the final Piagetian stage of formal operations (somewhere around puberty), run the risk of suffering negative consequences… [I]f students do not reach a certain threshold in their first language, they may experience cognitive difficulties in the second language" (1997, p.41).

The sociocultural dimension of this model involves all of the social and cultural processes that occur in all contexts of a learner’s life, including the home, school, community and broader society. An example of the influence these processes have on second-language acquisition involves the effects that community social patterns of

Return to Table of Contents




























Discrimination of and response to sounds, words and unanalyzed chunks in listening. Identification of labels, letters, phrases in reading.

Production of single words and formulas; imitation of models. Handwriting, spelling, writing of known elements from dictation.




Recognition of and response to new combinations of known words and phrases in listening and oral reading. Internal translation to and from first language.

Emergence of interlanguage/

telegraphic speech; code-switching and first-language transfer. Writing from guidelines and recombination dictation.





Understanding meaning of what is listened to in informal situations. Emergence of silent reading for basic comprehension.

Communication of meaning, feelings, and intentions in social and highly contextualized situations. Emergence of expository and creative writing.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .THRESHOLD . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



Language Proficiency





Acquisition of factual information from listening and reading in decontextualized situations.

Application of factual information acquired to formal, academic speaking and writing activities.




Use of information acquired through reading and listening to find relationships, make inferences, draw conclusions.

Explanation of relationships, inferences, and conclusions through formal speech and writing.




Evaluation of accuracy, value, and applicability of ideas acquired through reading and listening.

Expression of judgments through speech and writing, use of rhetorical conventions.

Figure 1:1

prejudice and discrimination toward individuals or groups can have on ELL affective factors (e.g., self-esteem, and attitudes toward the target language and those who speak it as a native language). By negatively influencing learner affective factors, such sociocultural processes can seriously hinder the second-language acquisition process.

The academic dimension of this model includes all schoolwork in language arts, mathematics, the sciences and social studies for each grade level. Thomas and Collier note that "with each succeeding grade, academic work dramatically expands the vocabulary, sociolinguistic, and discourse dimensions of language to higher cognitive levels" (1997, p.43). However, instruction that focuses on cognitively simple tasks (often termed "basic skills") does not support the language development process to the same degree as cognitively complex, on-grade-level instruction.

Thomas and Collier assert that because these processes are interdependent, they must all be supported simultaneously if educators are to succeed in developing deep levels of proficiency in academic English among ELLs. Specifically, these researchers conclude that:

  • Schools should provide ELLs with cognitively complex academic instruction through their first language for as long as possible, while providing cognitively complex instruction through the second language for part of the school day.

  • Educators should employ interactive, discovery learning approaches to teaching the academic curriculum through both languages.

  • Schools should create a sociocultural context of schooling in which: ELLs are integrated with English speakers in a supportive, affirming context for all; bilingualism is considered an asset, and a school's bilingual education program is perceived as the gifted and talented program for all students; and majority/minority relations in the school are transformed so that all students experience a positive, safe school environment. (Thomas & Collier, 1998)
Social, Linguistic, and Cognitive Processes Model

Lilly Wong Fillmore (1985) approached the second-language acquisition process from a sociological perspective rather than from a linguistic one. Although her model is similar to those developed from the linguistic perspective, she focuses on a model of language learning in a social context; i.e., .learners must figure out the system of rules of the target language and internalize it. They must discover how speech segments are used to represent meaning, and how these units of meaning are put together to relay complex ideas. To do this learners use the cognitive tools at their disposal, such as associative skills, memory, inferential skills and any other analytical skills they need to figure out the new language. The learners will search for ways to communicate their thoughts and feelings through the second language the same way they do so with the members of their first-language community. It is the willingness of learners to take a risk in the new language that expedites the acquisition process. The same social, linguistic and cognitive components to the process of second-language acquisition are also reported by Chomsky for L1. Return to Table of Contents

Section Three: Learner Characteristics

That Influence Second-Language Acquisition

Successful second-language learning is dependent on the complicated interaction of individual and group learner characteristics and motivations. It also depends on the individual strategies used by the language learner and the conditions in which the learning takes place. Second-language learning is a multi-faceted issue with an already large body of research that continues to grow daily. The identification and study of learner characteristics that influence second-language learning is an essential part of this work. The following learner characteristics that influence second-language learning are investigated in this section: age, degree of first-language development, motivation, attitude, intelligence, aptitude, personality and learning styles.


Many researchers reflect the generally held assumption that children are more proficient at second-language acquisition than older individuals. However, August and Hakuta (1997) note that this assumption is not substantiated by research.15 Though, as was discussed above, research shows that children are natural language acquirers prior to the onset of puberty,16 this does not mean that they are in all ways more skillful in second-language learning than adults are. In fact, research conducted by Collier (1987), Krashen (1982), Krashen, Long, and Scarcella (1979), Krashen and Terrell (1983) and Scarcella and Higa (1982) provides evidence that children are not superior to older individuals in all aspects of second-language acquisition.

The findings of these researchers suggest that children are superior to adults in L2 acquisition only in regard to the level of L2 proficiency they are ultimately able to attain. Students who begin to learn an L2 as children (i.e., before age 15) will attain higher levels of L2 proficiency than those who begin as adults. However, adults are faster than young children in attaining L2 proficiency over the short run. In the beginning stages of L2 development, adults make more progress in acquiring morphological, syntactic and lexical aspects of the L2.17

One reason adults are at an advantage in the early stages of second-language acquisition is that their experiences (which increase their world knowledge base) have a positive impact on language comprehension. A second reason, according to Krashen (1982), is that adults generally receive more comprehensible input (the amount of new language, either written or heard, that the learner is exposed to and understands) than young children. Krashen argues that this is because adolescents and adults are more skillful in dictating both the quantity and quality of their input (by means such as asking for assistance, redirecting the topic, and guiding the conversation so it will be more understandable and more specific to their learning needs).

A third reason is that adults are able to largely bypass the initial silent period that is so obvious in young learners. Tabors and Snow (1994), in their study of the language development of preschool age L2 learners, note that when young children are in a social setting and are unable to speak the language of the group, they initially respond to this dilemma in one of two ways: they continue to speak their native language or they stop speaking. Many children, when

faced with a social situation in which their home language is not useful for communication will abandon attempts to communicate in that language and enter a period when they do not talk at all. This period has been observed by a number of previous researchers who have termed it the “silent or mute period.” (p.107)

Older learners, according to Krashen (1982), are able to largely circumvent this silent period due to their ability to produce in the second language by using first-language rules. This allows the learner to more actively participate in conversation and receive a greater amount of specific comprehensible input, for very specific purposes, than that received by children.

The finding that young children do not attain second-language proficiency more quickly than adults has significant implications for educators. Educators should understand that learning a second language is a process that is just as difficult for a child as it is for an adult. In fact it may be more difficult for a child: “Young children do not have access to the memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced learners use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning grammatical rules” (McLaughlin, 1992, p.3). Common assumptions regarding how children learn second languages are harmful when they produce expectations that are impossible for children to meet. Particularly damaging are the beliefs that children learn languages more easily than adults do and that the younger the child the quicker he or she will learn.

Degree of First-Language Development

One of the most valuable contributions that Thomas and Collier offer to educators is their data on the importance of strong language skills in the native language for the academic achievement of second-language learners. Their longitudinal study of program design effectiveness discussed in Chapter Three suggests that children with strong L1 skills will acquire an L2 more quickly than children with less developed L1 skills.

We also know from research that continued development in the L1 facilitates faster and easier acquisition in the L2 and therefore continued native language development, and grammar development in particular, should be encouraged. (Cummins,1984; Hakuta,1987; August & Hakuta,1998).18 Researchers conclude “…second-language acquisition is faster and easier if continued development in the first language is supported through mastery of the basic grammar in the first language, around age 6” (August & Hakuta, 1997, p.38). 19

Age of Arrival

By focusing on the age of arrival into a formal educational program, Collier (1987) and Thomas and Collier (1997) expand on this discussion of age. They have conducted extensive research analyzing the length of time required for ELLs to become proficient in English for academic achievement. Attempting to answer the question of how much time is needed to assist students with no English-language proficiency in attaining an academic achievement level on a par with their native-English speaking peers, these researchers separately examined every combination of age, English-language proficiency, and academic achievement. Based on this work, Thomas and Collier assert that a child's age of arrival into a formal school program in the U.S. is a crucial component to understanding the relationship between age of the learner and second-language learning when it is linked with the variable of how much first-language schooling a child has received.

In these studies, immigrant students who had received all subject area instruction in English after arriving in the U.S. were tested in reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. A 50th percentile test score was used as the criteria for national grade-level norms for academic achievement in all the subject areas tested.

Thomas and Collier found that children who arrived in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 11 years old, and who immediately entered a formal school program, needed 5-7 years of school in order to reach the typical academic achievement levels of their native-English speaking peers. In contrast, immigrant children who entered a school program in the U.S. before the age of 8 required 7-10 years of school in order to reach grade level norms in academic achievement. Thomas and Collier (1997) assert that the only difference between these two groups was that children in the former group were schooled in their first language in their native country for at least 2-5 years, while those in the latter group had received little or no formal schooling in their first language. This finding provides significant evidence of the importance of strong first-language skills.

Thomas and Collier note that although ELLs who arrive before the age of 8 may make remarkable gains in grades K-3 when they are instructed in all English programs, their progression rate drops as the work becomes more cognitively demanding. This is especially true of the complex work demanded of these students in middle and high school.

Thomas and Collier also found that 12-15 year old arrivals with a strong first language foundation made progress each school year but didn’t have enough time in high school to acquire cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) and arrive at grade level norms in academic achievement. With instruction only in the second language, students are unable to learn academic content until they understand English. Collier (1987) warns that the 12-15 year-olds must not lose the valuable time they need in academic instruction in content areas taught at grade level. It is imperative that students be taught either through the first language, or through intensive courses taught in the second language, until they are adequately proficient in English to be able to do grade level work in that language.

It is obvious from these findings that students needing the shortest length of time to achieve normal grade level test scores, in all subjects, were children who had received formal educational training in their first language in their native country (for 2-5 years) or children who had received first language instructional support in United States bilingual programs at least through ages 6-8. The conclusion is that the completion of the language development process in the L1 facilitates second-language acquisition and thus accelerates academic achievement. This is consistent with the earlier statements that young learners with strong L1 skills will acquire their L2 more quickly than children with less developed L1 skills.

In summary:

  • Eight to eleven year old arrivals, schooled in their L1 in their native countries for at least 2-5 years, need 5-7 years of school to attain a level of academic achievement comparable to native-English speakers. This group required the shortest period of schooling to attain this level of academic achievement.

  • Program arrivals before age 8 need 7-10 years of school to reach grade level norms in academic achievement when instructed in English-only programs.

  • Twelve-fifteen year-olds, engaged in high school scholastic activities, may not have enough time in secondary school to acquire CALP and arrive at grade level norms in academic achievement. Academic instruction in content areas is needed in the L1 or intensive L2 instruction or other content-based instructional approaches until they are adequately proficient in English.
The Role of Formal Schooling in the First Language

The length of time of formal schooling in the first language is a very important predictor for the rate of the student’s progress in the second language (Baker, 1993; Collier, 1987; Cummins, 1991, 1996; Díaz & Klinger, 1991; Freeman & Freeman, 1992; García, 1993,1994; Genesee, 1987, 1994a; Hakuta, 1986; Lindholm, 1991; McLaughlin, 1992; Pérez & Torres-Guzmán, 1996; Snow, 1990; Thomas & Collier, 1997; Tinajero & Ada, 1993; Wong Fillmore & Valadez, 1986). As stated above, children who received at least 2-5 years of formal instruction in their native language attained in 5-7 years the same or higher academic achievement than the native speakers of English. In addition, students were bilingual. This is the shortest period needed to reach the 50th percentile on standardized norm-referenced tests for any group of L2 learners.20 Thomas and Collier (1997) clarify that native-English speakers in each 10 month academic year make 10 months’ progress in academic achievement. Consequently, the ELL needs to make a 15 NCE gain, instead of the 10 NCE gain needed by native speakers of English, to eventually be on grade level. Thomas and Collier warn that,

English language learners who have received all their schooling exclusively through L2 [i.e. English] might achieve 6-8 months’ gain each school year as they reach middle and high school years, relative to the 10-month gain of typical native-English speakers. (Thomas and Collier, 1997, p.35)21

If students do not receive support in their first language or if they are not taught content through content-based English as a second language (ESL) or sheltered English, they might never meet the norm.

Collier also warns that it is not realistic to expect ELLs to make the same gains and to achieve the same academic levels as their native-English speaking peers, sooner than in 5-7 years. We can not expect students to go from the first percentile to the 50th in 1-2 years (see Figure 3:1 on page 58 of this document). Second language learners need extra time and extra support.

As we know from Thomas and Collier’s (1997) research, only the students in one-way developmental and two-way developmental bilingual education programs continue to make progress toward high academic achievement. As can be seen in Figure 3:1, second language learners in two-way bilingual (developmental) programs surpass their native-English speaking peers and achieve higher on-grade-level performance in English in all academic subjects. Thomas and Collier (1997) consistently argue that it is the relationship between first and second languages that makes this possible because students will progress more quickly in the L2 when cognitive and academic developments have been nurtured in the L1.22 These provide a strong foundation of skills that are transferable into an L2.

Attitude and Motivation

Attitude is defined as an individual’s reaction about or toward something based on their beliefs or opinions, while motivation refers to the degree an individual strives to do something because they desire to and because of the pleasure and fulfillment derived from the activity. According to many researchers, attitude and motivation play an important role in second-language learning. For instance, Gardner (1985) contends that attitude and motivation are important because second-language courses are fundamentally different from other courses for a student. In contrast to other courses, students undertaking second-language study are faced with material outside their cultural context. They are not just asked to learn about the language; they are required to learn the language and make it part of their behavior.

Gardner reviewed and evaluated classic research literature that utilized the Attitude/Motivation Test Battery, developed and tested in a number of regions across Canada. This research measured a number of attitudinal and motivational factors, including:

  • attitude toward the target population;

  • attitude toward learning the second language;

  • attitude toward the teacher and course;

  • anxiety in the language class;

  • parental encouragement;

  • desire to learn the target language;

  • motivational intensity; and

  • integrative23 and instrumental24 orientations.

From this research, Gardner concluded that a favorable set of attitudes and motivation can predict successful second-language learning.

Gardner states that some major findings from this research, using versions of the above mentioned test battery, include:

  • attitude toward the other culture and attitude toward learning the second language are both correlated with second-language proficiency but the greater predictor of success is the attitude toward learning the language;

  • attitudes and motivation will determine the extent to which students will actively involve themselves in learning the language; and

  • orientations (different reasons for learning a second language) may be related to success in the second language because they reflect the differences in motivation.25

In their classic study on attitude and motivation, Gardner and Lambert (1972) also concluded that attitude and motivation are factors that influence the development of second-language proficiency. Successful language learners “must be psychologically prepared to adopt various aspects of behavior which characterize members of another linguistic–cultural group” (Gardner and Lambert, 1972, p.3). Similarly, Scarcella (1990) claims,

Motivation plays a central role in second language development. When language minority students find that the traditions of native mainstream Americans are congruent with their own lifestyles, they are likely to be successful. Conversely, when they find that the lifestyles of middle-Americans are incongruent with their own, they usually acquire the second language slowly and may stop learning before they gain native speaker proficiency in English. (Scarcella, p.57)

Identity and Second-Language Learning

Motivation to learn a second language is significantly tied to a student’s attitude toward the second-language speakers (Cummins, 1979a). Drawing from the work of Lambert (1967) and Wong Fillmore (1978), Cummins (1979a) theorizes,

Where there is a strong desire to identify with members of the L2 group, the children will be highly motivated to learn L2. Conversely, motivation to learn L2 is likely to be low when the learning of L2 is regarded as a threat to the children’s identity. (p.243)

There are four ways that language-minority children can establish personal identity in relation to their participation in two cultures. These are:

  • identifying harmoniously with both the first- and second-language cultures;

  • identifying with the second-language culture and rejecting the first-language culture;

  • identifying with the first-language culture and rejecting the second-language culture; and

  • failure to identify with either the first- or second-language culture (Lambert, 1967, as cited in Cummins, 1979a).

There is an intimate link between these patterns of identification and the learning of the first and second language. A child is most likely to reach high levels of competency in both languages when a close identification with both cultures is established. This competency level will be higher than that of the child who does not identify with either culture. It is also true that a child may foster the replacement of the first language by the second language if the child identifies only with the second-language group and the child who rejects the second-language culture will not be open to learning the second language.

Three unique motivational styles utilizing the above means of cultural participation, in regard to second-language learning, are proposed by Ventriglia (1982). She terms these:

  • Crystallizing: Crystallizers maintain their identity with the first-language culture. They are cautious learners who display a passive attitude toward second-language learning. Crystallizers initially reject the second language and do not interact socially with English speakers or identify with them. These learners are listeners, and long periods of silence are not unusual for them. They will verbalize only when they have perfected their comprehension.

  • Crossing Over: Crossovers identify with the second culture. They are flexible and independent learners who are willing to take chances. These learners view second-language identification as a positive way to adapt to the school setting. Crossovers are eager to practice newly acquired skills both in and out of the classroom. They may temporarily move closer to English speaking peers and to embracing a new identity.

  • Crisscrossing: Crisscrossers identify with both the first and second cultures. They are spontaneous, adaptable, and creative learners. Crisscrossers have a positive attitude toward both languages and are comfortable navigating back and forth between the two. They embrace a bicultural identity.

Children with all three motivational styles will eventually learn the second language but these styles identify which attitudinal factors facilitate a quicker progression of language acquisition.
Affective Filter Hypothesis

Krashen (1982), in a summary of second-language acquisition theory, offers a hypothesis of the affective filter and its relationship to motivation. First proposed by Dulay and Burt (1977), the affective filter regulates how much input is received by a language processing mechanism. Three factors that determine success in second-language acquisition are highlighted in Krashen's review of the literature: high motivation, self-confidence and a good self-image, and low anxiety.

Krashen and Terrell (1983), in agreement with Dulay and Burt's (1977) suggestion that a lower affective filter is experienced by students with optimal attitudes, further explain that having the correct attitudes will encourage students to obtain more input, to interact confidently with speakers of the second language and to be open to the input they receive. Given two second-language learners receiving exactly the same input, the student with a lower filter will acquire more language. This implies that creating a classroom environment that fosters a low affective filter is critical to second-language learning.26 Suggestions would include (a) modeling correct utterances rather than correcting a student’s linguistic errors, and (b) building on the prior knowledge of the learner rather than suggesting that there is something wrong with the native language and culture that the student brings to the classroom.


Attempts by researchers to identify the characteristics of successful L2 learners have routinely focused on ascertaining what relationship exists, if any, between intelligence and L2 learning. Many leading studies in this area have suggested that general intelligence is an important predictor of a person's success in learning an L2 (Carroll, 1986; Gardner, 1983; Oller, 1981; as cited by August & Hakuta, 1998). However, because these studies have primarily focused on students learning English as a foreign language, the applicability of their findings to ELLs who are learning English as a second language in U.S. public schools is questionable. This is because the experience of a student who is a native speaker of a society's majority language, and who is learning a foreign language through a standard foreign-language class, is fundamentally different from the experience of an ELL who is surrounded by an L2 for much of the day.

It is in fact generally believed among researchers that there is a low correlation between intelligence and the ability to acquire a second language by a healthy normal child. However, we were unable to locate any quantitative research that directly addresses this hypothesis. The only research that may be applicable to the subject involves several studies that have addressed the relation of intelligence to L2 learning among immigrant students, and non-immigrant students in immersion programs. 27 These studies are arguably more applicable than those cited above because they focused on students whose experiences are more closely related to the experiences of ELLs in U.S. public schools. Their findings suggest that low intelligence does not obstruct the L2 learning of these students to the degree it would for mainstream students learning foreign languages in conventional classroom settings (Bruck, 1982, 1984; Genesee, 1992, as cited by August & Hakuta, 1998).

Even if research on this topic were available, the validity of such research would be questionable given the myriad of problems related to the use of IQ tests on language-minority students. August and Hakuta (1997) and Cummins (1984) warn against the use of IQ tests (or other psychological measures) as indicators of the academic potential of minority students, rather than as measures of their current ability level in English academic tasks. It is perceived as culturally biased to apply assessment and placement procedures created for middle-class English speaking students to students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. August and Hakuta (1997) maintain that “assessing the intelligence of second-language learners is a risky process. Whenever possible, such assessments should be conducted in the native language – though if the assessment is closely tied to school tasks, the child may display better performance in the school language” (August & Hakuta, 1997, p.38-39).

It is also well documented that early studies (before the 1960s) of the academic achievement of language-minority children found that bilingual children did not perform well on the verbal parts of intelligence tests and on academic tasks. But more recent studies (after the early 1960s) dispute this and report that bilingualism can have a positive affect on cognitive and linguistic abilities. Almost all the earlier research tested students in the process of replacing their L1 with the dominant language (Cummins, 1979b).

Academic difficulties are more likely attributed to school policies that foster language replacement rather than to bilingualism. In the more recent studies students shared an important commonality, “…they were developing what has been termed an additive form of bilingualism (Lambert,1975); in other words, they were adding a second language to their repertory of skills at no cost to the development of their first language” (Cummins, 1996, p.105).

In summary the following issues must be considered in evaluating the validity of intelligence tests for minority students:

  • There may be a disparity in the testers’ knowledge about the limitations of IQ and other psychological tests.

  • There may be a disparity in the testers’ knowledge about the development of academic skills in second-language learners.

  • It must be established as to when a second-language learner is sufficiently proficient in English in order to perform adequately on the cognitive/academic measures of intelligence tests.

  • The cultural learning experiences of minority children are different from those of the majority children. The opportunity to learn test content is not as great. The resulting implication is that the use of an IQ test to measure previous learning is invalid because there is no adequate sample of the minority children’s learning experiences.28

These issues must be addressed to ensure the implementation of appropriate procedures for assessing minority students’ abilities and potential (Cummins, 1984).

Second-Language Aptitude

It is often stated that an individual has a special “aptitude” for second-language study. There seems to be a great deal of empirical support for this idea. Gardner submits that “research literature supports the generalization that there is an ‘aptitude for languages’ and that it includes abilities such as phonetic coding, grammatical sensitivity, memory, verbal intelligence, and an auditory ability” (Gardner, 1985, p.37). But he concedes that much of this research, from which these abilities were derived and categorized, was initiated in the 1960s and before. New techniques and concepts in the area of verbal learning may have vital implications for the definition of significant abilities in current second-language learning.

Krashen and Terrell (1983) point out that a second-language classroom that is acquisition-oriented should minimize the individual differences in aptitude. Both high and low aptitude students should successfully acquire communication skills if the classroom provides a learning atmosphere that includes a low anxiety setting, encourages self-confidence in the acquirer and stresses an integrative29 orientation toward native-language speakers (Krashen, 1982). But Krashen also recognizes that aptitude differences play a role if the emphasis is on grammatical accuracy rather than communicative skills.


August and Hakuta (1997) comment on the amount of studies that have tried to identify factors predicting individual predisposition toward second-language acquisition. A great deal of this work, however, has focused on learning a foreign language rather than learning a language in the society where it is used. Although August and Hakuta predict that researchers will continue to find this a topic of interest, they conclude that future research would most likely not be productive “given the inordinate difficulty of validly measuring personality constructs cross-culturally…” (p.39).

Gardner (1985) also concludes that although more research may be warranted, studies have been inconclusive and findings often inconsistent. He notes that many teachers see associations between successful second-language acquisition and personality attributes, but that in some instances some of the traits associated with both successful and unsuccessful students are the same.

Learning Styles

Research suggests that learning styles are an important factor in second-language acquisition (Chamot, 1981; Scarcella, 1990). The term learning style refers to the “cognitive and interactional patterns which affect the ways in which students perceive, remember, and think” (Scarcella, 1990, p.114). Scarcella (1990), in a review of learning styles, enumerates four prominent learning style typologies:

  • Sensory Modality Strength: This typology categorizes learners according to the type of sensory input they utilize most for information. Learners are categorized as: visual, meaning they remember best by seeing or reading; auditory, meaning they remember best by hearing; or tactile-kinesthetic, meaning they remember best by writing or using their hands in a manipulative way.

  • Global/Analytic: This typology categorizes learners as global or analytic. Global learners initially require an overall picture when learning a task. In contrast, analytic learners are fact oriented and proceed with learning a task in a step-by-step manner.

  • Field Sensitivity/Field Independence: This typology categorizes learners as field-sensitive or field-independent, depending on how their perceptions are affected by the surrounding environment. Field-sensitive learners enjoy working with others to achieve a common goal, and most often look to the teacher for guidance and demonstration. Field-independent learners enjoy working independently, like to compete, and ask for teacher assistance only in relation to the current task.

  • Cooperation/Individualism: This typology categorizes learners as cooperative or individualistic. Cooperative learners excel in community projects and in group activities designed to encourage collaboration among students. Individualistic learners do best in more competitive and teacher-centered settings.30

Another typology of learning styles, which more specifically focuses on second-language learning, is proposed by Ventriglia (1982). According to Ventriglia, “How children think, their cognitive style, frames how they begin to learn language” (p.131). She identifies three second-language learning styles:

  • Beading: Beaders learn words incrementally and embrace a gradual process of language learning. Beaders will not produce language until they understand the individual meaning of words. Initially it is easier for beaders to learn nouns before verbs. Complete comprehension of a word is attained before it becomes part of a beader's vocabulary.

  • Braiding: In contrast to beaders, braiders easily produce sentences in the early stages of language learning. Rather than needing to comprehend the meaning of individual words, oral production (which is learned through interaction with native speakers) takes on greater importance. Unlike beaders, who are reluctant to attempt oral communication unless they understand all the words included in a phrase, braiders are eager to try out their recently acquired language skills.

  • Orchestrating: Orchestrators initially process language on a phonological basis and place greatest importance on listening comprehension. Their language learning styles depend on oral models. Context is less important than the tone of speech. These students begin with sounds and then gradually make connections between these sounds and the formation of syllables, words, phrases and sentences.

As noted above, Scarcella (1990) argues that learning styles are an important factor in second-language acquisition. When attention is given to the learning styles of students, and incorporated into curriculum decisions, students’ ease in learning and their retention of material increases. In contrast, an incompatibility between a student’s learning style and those accommodated by an instructor’s teaching methods may foster student learning difficulties (Carbo, Dunn, & Dunn, 1986, as cited in Scarcella, 1990). By utilizing classroom teaching techniques that build on individual styles, teachers can facilitate the second-language learning process for children (Chamot, 1981).

It is important to note however that although educators should acknowledge and utilize individual students’ preferred styles of learning, students should also be exposed to multiple instructional approaches that are effective with the full range of learning styles. The primary reason for this is that by receiving instruction that accommodates other individuals’ learning styles, students “become more comfortable with learning styles they have not previously experienced, which means, encouraging learning style flexibility” (Scarcella, 1990, p.114).

Return to Table of Contents

Download 0.52 Mb.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7

The database is protected by copyright © 2022
send message

    Main page