Language Acquisition Theories for Teachers of ELLs

Language acquisition theories

With the number of English Language Learners in the U.S. growing, teachers of all grade levels and content areas come into contact with ELLs in their classrooms. But only the language specialists have traditionally had a background in the theory behind how people actually learn languages so schools struggle to best meet ELL’s needs.

Almost no time is spent learning about language-related topics in teacher preparation and continued professional development for instructors of subjects such as math, science, social studies, music, art, physical education, and special education. Understanding some basics of language acquisition theories can be helpful for all teachers who need to make curricular content more accessible to ELLs, while also allowing teachers and administrators to better understand what ELLs are going through.

The fields of English as a Second Language (teaching English to non-English speakers in the U.S.), English as a Foreign Language (teaching English abroad to speakers of other languages), and Foreign Language Education (teaching Spanish, French, Japanese, etc. to English-speaking students in the U.S.) are related. They all share a core focus on understanding how people learn both their first and second languages.

So, if you studied a foreign language in school, you have already experienced some of the same things that our ELLs are going through while they learn English. Thinking back on that experience might help you to relate to the struggles and successes of the ELLs in your own classroom today.

History of language acquisition research

Formal research on language acquisition only began about 100 years ago and has gone through many growing pains over the years. At the turn of the 20th century, the entire focus on classroom-based language learning centered around grammar and translation, since almost all material was print-based. The grammar/translation method grew into what many of us know from Berlitz or the direct approach to teaching vocabulary and grammar with travel in mind.

From there, technology and globalism evolved, and teachers focused more on speaking and listening skills. Many Baby Boomers who studied Spanish or French in high school may remember practicing phrases with audiotapes and rehearsing the same memorized dialogues over and over again.

The 1970s brought many creative innovations, most of which were novel but did not last (much like the decade itself!).

As we moved closer to the 21st century, teachers began to focus more on how the brain processes language and how social interaction is the key to language learning.

The focus for the past 30 years has been on learning to actually communicate in a second language via all four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Younger teachers today may have even used computers and the internet as tools when they learned a foreign language in school. These are common elements in today’s language learning experiences, especially for our ELLs.

Language acquisition theories

Let’s dive into a few of the core theories and think about the ELLs in our classrooms today.

  • Decades ago, linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen developed five core hypotheses on language acquisition that are still often cited and influential today.
    • The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis makes the distinction between acquisition and learning. This difference is important for teachers to understand because ELLs will acquire some language naturally and will learn other aspects in a more formal, classroom setting, such as with books and worksheets. A great example of acquisition is the informal learning that happens between peers on the playground. Both learning and acquisition feed off of each other as the ELL’s English proficiency grows.
    • The Natural Order Hypothesis is important for teachers to understand, because certain elements of language are normally acquired in a specific sequence. We need to know the normal order in which language elements are learned. If students are struggling with a more advanced element of English grammar, maybe they haven’t yet acquired the things that had to occur before that.
    • The Input Hypothesis is sometimes known as “i+1,” which means that teachers need to use language input that is just above the ELL’s current level of proficiency. If we go too high or too low with our language expectations, the window for new learning closes. Paying attention to each ELL’s ongoing language proficiency level helps us to see the next level (or the “+1”), so students can avoid frustration and continue to learn.
    • Most teachers can probably already relate to the core idea behind the Affective Filter Hypothesis. If students are stressed and anxious, due to a high-pressure learning situation, they will shut down and not be able to go any further. This is true for all sorts of learning, but Krashen noted that stress and anxiety in classrooms can particularly impact language learners’ abilities to speak and understand language.
    • Krashen’s idea of the Monitor Hypothesis helps teachers to understand what is going on in language learners’ heads while they are learning. Each of us has an “inner voice” that monitors our input and output during our interactions with reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This “inner voice” is like a critic or editor that constantly evaluates our own ongoing language development, looking for and correcting errors and confusing aspects of language as we go along.
  • Moving beyond Krashen’s work, students need to produce output in order to practice their language and gain confidence. Output can take the form of written or spoken language and occurs at all levels, from beginning to advanced ELLs.
  • Interlanguage, a concept first developed by linguist Larry Selinker, can be a helpful language acquisition concept to understand, because it functions as the bridge between our first and second languages in our brains. If you’ve ever learned a foreign language and mixed the two up in a unique way within your brain (such as “Spanglish” for Spanish and English), you’ve experienced interlanguage.
  • Teachers can think about both the biological and social aspects that contribute to language acquisition. Language acquisition is often seen as “nature versus nurture.”
    • The famed Noam Chomsky’s work focuses on the nature, with the biological and brain elements that make humans uniquely able to use languages. For example, all languages share certain features, known as Universal Grammar, so learners can rely on the understanding of those basic structures and patterns from their first language while learning their second language. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has extended Chomsky’s work in highly accessible and often humorous ways in his books and lectures.
    • Psychologist Lev Vygotsky is often known to many teachers, due to the influence of terms like “scaffolding” student learning. Scaffolding is especially important in language acquisition because we learn language primarily via social interaction.
    • When you think about it in terms of our ELLs in our classrooms, both the biological and social aspects are important. Nature and nurture actually work together!

Putting theory into teaching practice

Here are some tips that all teachers can use with their ELLs as they continue to acquire English:

  • Get to know your ELLs as individuals, especially with regard to their language proficiency levels. That way, you can tailor the content and language of your lessons to the right level of input and output.
  • Work to establish a positive classroom environment with low stress and anxiety, so that ELLs are comfortable practicing their English, asking questions, and interacting with you and their peers.
  • Consider using small groups for instruction and activities, so that ELLs can have extended and comfortable opportunities for input and output and for both formal language learning and informal language acquisition.
  • Scaffold student learning with the idea that both nature and nurture work together. Scaffolding can happen for both content and language learning in all content areas and grade levels.
  • The SIOP model is teacher-tested and based on language acquisition research, especially with regard to language input.
  • Technology can fill in the gaps for busy teachers and their ELLs. If you find gaps in your teaching related to language acquisition, try out some 21st-century technology to help ELLs to fill in those gaps.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral-level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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