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This chapter looks at second language acquisition in a classroom setting. It considers whether instruction makes a difference to SLA. This is an important issue, because it addresses the question of the role played by environmental factors in SLA. It is also an important educational issue, as language pedagogy has traditionally operated on the assumption that grammar can be taught.


Two board types of SLA can be identified according to the acquisition setting;


  1. Naturalistic SLA.

  2. Classroom SLA.


It was pointed out that classroom discourse can be distorted, in comparisons to naturally occurring discourse. An important question therefore is in what ways this distortion, which is largely brought about by the attempt to instruct rather than to converse, affects the route and rate of SLA in the classroom. By considering how formal instruction affects SLA it is possible to address the wider issue of the role environmental factors.


In many instructional methods an assumption is made that focusing on linguistic form aids the acquisition or grammatical knowledge or to put it another way, that raising the learner’s consciousness about the nature of target language rules helps the learner to internalize them.


In the case of deductive methods this is self-evidently the case. But it is also true in ‘habbit methods’ methods such as audio-legal lingualism , as the purpose of the practice provided is to focus on specific linguistic forms, which the learner is encouraged to induced and of which ultimately he will form a more or less, conscious mental representation.


Another assumption of formal instruction is that the order in which grammatical features are taught will govern the order in which they are learnt. Language syllabuses are organized in such a way as to facilitate the correlation between the teaching order and the learning order.


The investigation of the role of formal instruction can be undertaken in two ways. First, an answer to the question ‘Does formal instruction aid SLA?’ can be sought. Secondly, the question ‘What kinds of formal instruction facilitate SLA the most?’ can be tackled. In the first question there is an assumption that all types of formal instructions share certain basic premises and that it is, therefore possible to talk generically of ‘ Formal instruction’. In the second question there is an assumption that formal instruction in general is facilitative and that the important issue is what is distinguishes the more successful from the least successful types.


What the different instructional methods had in common was a focus on form, manifested, for instance, in the provision of feedback by the teacher for correcting formal errors.


This chapter has four sections. The first examines its effect on the route of SLA. The secondly examine its effect on the rate/success of SLA. In the third section, explanations of the result reported in the first two sections will be reviewed. Finally, the conclusion briefly considers the implications for both SLA theory and language pedagogy.



The effects of formal instruction on the route of SLA


The route of SLA was considered in term of general sequence of development and the order in which specific grammatical features were acquired. The evidence for the reported universality of the sequence and the minor differences in the order come from (1) morpheme studied (2) longitudinal studies. These studies how ever were of either pure naturalistic SLA or mixed SLA. The morpheme and longitudinal studies will again be considerers separately.


Morpheme studies of classroom SLA


The morpheme studies can be divided into two groups. In the first group are five studies that investigated second language learners. In the other group are four studies investigated foreign language learners


Perkins and Larsen freeman (1975) investigated the morpheme; they used two tasks to collect data;


  1. A translation test.

  2. A description task based on a non-dialogue film.


On (1) the morpheme orders before and after instruction differed significantly, but on (2) there was no significant difference. In other words, the teaching and learning orders were different. Taken together, these studies suggest but do not prove that formal instruction does not alter the order of acquisition of grammatical morphemes when the learners is engaged in language use and is focused on meaning.



This general conclusion holds true irrespective of whether the learners are children or adults and most interestingly, irrespective of whether the learners are in foreign or second language environments. Formal instruction appears, then to have only a negligible effect on the morpheme order manifest in spontaneous language use. However, morpheme orders measure accuracy rather than acquisition. In order to obtain a more reliable picture of the effects of instruction on L2 development, it is necessary to turn to the longitudinal studies of translation structures.


Longitudinal studies of classroom CLA


Curiously the case-study approach, so central to the methodological baggage of first and second language acquisition researchers has not typically, been thought sensible for learners in class. There are very few longitudinal studies of classroom SLA. The three that will be discussed here are Felix (1981), Ellis (1984a) and Schumann (1978b). The available longitudinal evidence, therefore is even slighter that provided by the morpheme studies. The general teaching method was a traditional audio-lingual one, the grammatical structures that Felix report on are negation, interrogation, sentence types, and pronoun. For each structure, parallels were found between tutored and naturalistic SLA. In a classroom where the instruction is very formal, learners are constantly being forced to produce structures they are not ready for. Felix suggests that they solve the problem that this poses for them in one of two ways. Either they select random from the structures in their repertoire, irrespective of syntactic or semantic appropriateness, or they follow the same rules that characterize the early stages of naturalistic language acquisition.


Ellis examined negatives, interrogatives, and a number of verb phrase morpheme. All of these structures were formally taught at one time. When the communicative speech produced by the learners in the classroom was analysed, it was shown to display a pattern of development more or less identical to that observed in naturalistic SLA.


In Schumann’s study a deliberate attempt was made to teach an adult L2 learner how to negate. This took place in the context of a longitudinal study of what was otherwise naturalistic SLA. Prior to the instructional experiment the learner’s negative utterances were collected, Schumann concluded that the instruction influenced the learner’s production only in test-like situations, while normal communication remained unaffected.



Taking these studies together, the following can be hypothesized:


  1. Instruction does not circumvent the processes responsible for the sequence of development evident in transitional structures such as negatives an interrogative in naturalistic SLA.

  2. When classroom learners are required to produce structures beyond their competence, idiosyncratic forms are likely to result.

  3. The distorted input may prolong certain stages of development and slow down the emergence of some grammatical features.

  4. Classroom learners are able to make use of knowledge acquired through formal instruction when they are focused on form.

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December 26, 2007 Posted by | THE ROLE OF FORMAL INSTRUCTION IN SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUI | Leave a comment