Principles of Instructed Second Language Acquisition

This resource offers ten principles on second language acquisition to guide teachers in teaching English as a second language. 

R. Ellis
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
University of Auckland
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

In this resource, Ellis offers ten principles on second language acquisition to guide teachers in teaching English as a second language. He acknowledges the lack of consensus in the field; he draws primarily on the computational model of second language learning (p. 5). His principles cover: developing rule-based and formulaic based language, focus on meaning and form, developing explicit and implicit knowledge, second language input and practice, individual differences, and assessing learners’ proficiency. It is a concise, practical, and useful guide to implementing research into the second language classroom.

What the experts say

The digest, Principles of Instructed Second Language Acquisition, offers a reasoned, succinct discussion of basic principles of second language acquisition for language teachers in many settings, placed within the context that, “second language acquisition (SLA) researchers do not agree how instruction can best facilitate language learning" (p.1). This article synthesizes a great deal of SLA thought within ten general principles that can help teachers make language instruction as effective as possible. The author describes contradictory aspects and theories around each principle (focus on form vs. meaning; explicit knowledge vs. implicit) making it possible for readers to weigh different points of view on one principle.

This paper is valuable to the field of adult ESL instruction for two related reasons: 1) the general principles can help direct teachers to appropriate and effective classroom approaches and 2) the article is so clearly written that even novice adult ESL teachers may be able to understand this synthesis of SLA thought.

The ten principles (e.g., Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning; Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form; Instruction needs to focus on developing implicit knowledge of the second language while not neglecting explicit knowledge) may challenge classroom teachers to look beyond textbook promotion literature or online purveyors of lessons plans to really understand what procedures and activities need to take place so adult English language learners can progress. 

The article is quite theoretical and may be challenging for readers. For example, adult ESL teachers who may have limited or no background in language teaching may be unfamiliar with such terms as “formulaic expression,” “rule-based competence,” or “built-in syllabus.” Or, applying the distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge of language into classroom. This article could serve as the basis of a short course on SLA.

In his conclusion, the author notes that the article’s principles come mostly from the computational model of second language and that his model is not socially sensitive. Readers should be aware that his approach seems to go against much of the recent stress on communicative approaches to teaching ESL.

He does, however, suggest that it would be useful to develop a set of principles based on a broader concept of SLA that includes social as well as cognitive aspects of second language acquisition. Such a set of principles would be particularly useful for those who work with adult immigrants and refugees. Until such a set is developed, Principles of Instructed Second Language is an excellent resource for instructors and administrators.

Useful Features:

  • Most sections provide examples, in shaded boxes, that support a given principle. These give helpful substance to abstract themes. Unfortunately, there is not a figure for each of the ten principles.
  • This is a digest to be read twice because many key ideas are presented, and directions for implementation are not always apparent. That said, there are many implications here for teaching beginning language learners and sound ideas about formulaic expressions, task-based learning and assessment.
  • Applicable to language learning in general, this digest is not directly targeted for adult education but certainly relates to work in the field.
  • The resource offers useful directions to teachers and researchers in adult education for further exploration of key topics.
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