English Language and Literacy Learning: Research to Practice
How do adults learn to speak and read English as a second language?
What are the best ways to develop speaking and reading skills with ESL learners?
Over the past 20 years, a growing number of adult ESL educators and researchers have sought answers to these questions as they grapple with the challenge s posed by an increasingly large and diverse population of adults in the United States learning English as a second language. This paper summarizes the literature on second language acquisition (focusing on learning to speak in a second language) and on adults learning to read in English and gives implications for instructional practice.
What Does the Research Say About Second Language Acquisition?
Studies of second language acquisition (SLA) focus primarily on the learning of oral language. They provide valuable information about how second languages are learned and the factors that influence the language learning process. Little research has been conducted on second language acquisition with English language learners in adult education contexts, and no controlled intervention studies have been done. The complexities of adult English as a second language (ESL) instruction make research in this field challenging. Investigating issues of culture, language, and education as well as tracking learner progress over time are not easy when working with diverse and mobile learner populations in varied learning contexts (e.g., workplace classes, general ESL classes, family literacy classes). However, the SLA literature gives important insights into the language acquisition process that can guide adult ESL instruction.
SLA researchers examine the development of communicative competence in a language—the ability to interpret the underlying meaning of a message, understand cultural references, use strategies to keep communication from breaking down, and apply the rules of grammar of the language (Savignon, 1997). They also study nonlinguistic influences on SLA such as age, anxiety, and motivation. (See Ellis, 1997; Gass & Selinker, 2001; & Pica, 2003 for extensive discussions of SLA theory and research.)
The following sections summarize the three major areas that are covered in the second language acquisition literature and that are critical to acquiring a second language: learner motivation, opportunities for interaction, and vocabulary knowledge. (This summary is adapted from Moss & Ross-Feldman, 2003; see also NCLE's Web resource collection, Second Language Acquisition, for an annotated list of the studies that form the basis for this summary: http://www.cal.org/caela/ResSLA.htm.)
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