January 1997 -- Volume 2, Number 3

Second Language Acquisition Theory and Pedagogy

Fred R. Eckman, Diane Highland, Peter W. Lee, Jean Milcham, and Rita Rutkowski Weber (Eds.) (1995)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xvii + 326
ISBN 0-8058-1687-9 (cloth)
US $69.95

This volume offers EFL/ESL practitioners valuable insights into the constantly changing relationship between second language acquisition (SLA) theory and pedagogy, and into the theoretical issues being discussed with respect to both; it is also a testament to the remarkable influence of Stephen Krashen in the field, and to the emergence of Universal Grammar (UG) in the field of linguistics, along with its concomitant effect on SLA.

Nineteen chosen papers, taken from presentations at the Twenty-Second University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Linguistics Symposium on Second Language Acquisition Theory and Pedagogy, held Oct. 8-10, 1993, are included in the volume. It is divided into five sections: Factors Affecting the L2 Setting; Input: Internal Factors; Input: External Factors; Output: Factors Affecting Production; and Output: Pronunciation.

I had looked forward to this volume because of my familiarity with the Focal Skills System, in which the language curriculum is redesigned so that beginning students are immersed almost entirely in a listening module (with electives) until they have mastered listening; they then move on to a reading module, followed by a writing module. I cannot do justice to the system here, but a chapter by Ashley Hastings, "The FOCAL SKILLS Approach: An Assessment," does. Written by the founder of the approach, the article presents the system itself, and evidence that it works. As the system is based directly on elements of Krashen's theories (e.g., a focus on receptive skills first; grammar and pronunciation not taught overtly), it is surprising that it hasn't received more attention to date, considering the popularity Krashen's theories have enjoyed in the last decade. Furthermore, Focal Skills programs have been functioning successfully in widely diverse locations (Japan, Virginia, Mississippi, Washington State, and UW-Milwaukee, to name a few) for quite some time. Just as communes that were based on B.F. Skinner's philosophy long outlasted the popularity of the philosophy itself, this system may well outlast the popularity of Krashen's theories, which are under attack from all sides. In any case, it remains as a testament to Krashen's influence.

In the conversation between researchers and teachers, teachers are often silent, having their hands full with daily planning. The advantage of this, as pointed out by Susan Gass in "Learning and Teaching: The Necessary Intersection," is that "teaching is by [-1-] necessity constant experimentation, and teachers are therefore constant researchers" (p. 17). The disadvantage is that for the same reason they may also be guilty of misunderstanding important theories, or at least overgeneralizing them. Diane Larsen- Freeman, in "On the Teaching and Learning of Grammar: Challenging the Myths," says that "the biggest myth of all, a megamyth if you will, is the assumption that what works in natural language acquisition should automatically become the pedagogy of the classroom" (p. 135). This myth, she points out, arises from Krashen's work. She goes on to attack other myths, some of which come from this one, and to add a much-needed teacher's voice to the dialogue. After all, what is important to the teacher is not whether the theories make sense, which they do, for the most part, but what happens as a result of their practical application every day in the classroom; thus, to the teacher, this is perhaps the most useful article in the volume.

In "Foreign Accent and Phonetic Interference: The Application of Linguistic Research to the Teaching of Second Language Pronunciation," Robert Hammond argues that pronunciation can be taught, in spite of anything Krashen may have argued; that "to rule out any value of pronunciation on the basis of [Krashen's] ideas would be premature, because the validity of [Krashen's SLA] hypotheses has yet to be determined" (p. 301). Should we teach grammar or pronunciation overtly? The fact that this question is the focus of our argument again speaks volumes to the degree that Krashen's theories have influenced the profession.

Krashen himself, in "Free Voluntary Reading: Linguistic and Affective Arguments and some New Applications," charges full-speed ahead, arguing that "the case for including free voluntary reading (FVR) in language education programs is, in my opinion, overwhelming" (p. 187), going on to call FVR "the best educational tool we have for literacy development" (p. 187). In my opinion, we should temper this with Gass' sensible reminder that "pedagogical research needs to understand which of learners' capabilities can be capitalized on in the classroom as they cannot be capitalized on outside the classroom" (p. 14), but Krashen almost sounds as if he'd have us give up teaching altogether, in favor of letting our students take class time reading pleasure novels. In fact, Krashen recommends that we "reduce or even stop standardized language testing" (p.199), since reading for pleasure is so much more effective than the kind of study that accompanies standardized tests. I would caution that while Krashen may be on the right track concerning how students might best spend their time, the majority of practitioners would be more willing to embrace a plan to improve standardized tests, making them test what we teach, or measure what we want them to measure, than to eliminate them altogether.

The middle chapters of the volume seem preoccupied with the justification of Universal Grammar and explanation of its applications to pedagogy. UG theorists such as Suzanne Flynn and [-2-] Gita Martohardjono (in "Toward Theory-Driven Language Pedagogy") want to separate out the universal elements of language, which are common to all languages and which we have an innate ability to understand, from systems of parameters that are language specific. Though Flynn and Martohardjono's article is clearer than those that follow it, the truth of their statement that "UG-based SLA research has afforded us a clearer and more precise picture of what needs to be learned than we had previously" (p. 56) is not obvious to this reader. An interesting controversy within the UG-based SLA community is the controversy over whether negative evidence, or the correction of student errors, is necessary in the acquisition of a second language. Krashen, of course, would deny that it is, saying that only actually occurring forms, provided by native speakers in communicative situations, are necessary for acquisition; most UG theorists have agreed, until recently. Lydia White, in "Input, Triggers, and Second Language Acquisition: Can Binding Be Taught?", complicates the issue; Joyce Bruhn-Garavito is not much better. I find this controversy to be similar to an argument over whether a fish needs water in order to eat. Adult language learners are surrounded by negative evidence, because, unlike children, they must speak in order to get what they want, and they notice, not only when they are inevitably corrected, but also when their utterances are ineffective. A more appropriate question might be: How can we control negative evidence so that it is most useful to the learner? Again, Larsen-Freeman offers the most sensible comment: "So certainly there is a controversy. It might be helpful to recall, however, that SLA theorists are concerned with specifying what is minimally necessary for acquisition to proceed. Second language educators are concerned with maximizing effectiveness" (p. 140). This is the crux of the communication breakdown here.

In a word, this may explain why the dialogue between SLA researchers and teachers can be difficult to follow. Everyone calls for more dialogue; everyone agrees that each side should have a better understanding of what the other is doing. Yet each side speaks with such a different perspective that progress, in terms of having what each of us does influence the other in a positive way, can be very difficult and slow. For the teacher, some useful articles (including Andrew Cohen's "SLA Theory and Pedagogy: Some Research Issues" and articles by John Paolillo, Anthony Ciccone, and others) give us valuable insight, a new perspective, and better understanding. Those alone make this volume worth reading. Insight into the debate surrounding some of Krashen's theories will certainly add perspective that is badly needed in the teaching profession. But most useful is the advice of those who, with one foot in the classroom, can keep researchers on task, and foster more genuine dialogue. Teachers cannot, and must not, turn their backs on this responsibility.

Thomas Leverett
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
leverett@siu.edu


[-3-]

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.