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Second Language Acquisition

How do people learn second languages? What is the best way to teach second languages? Many teachers recognize that to make informed decisions about instruction, they need to integrate professional wisdom with the best available information from research on how second languages are learned and the factors that influence the process.

Second language acquisition (SLA) research--the study of how people learn to communicate in a language other than their native language--examines a broad range of questions from a wide variety of perspectives. Recent SLA research has focused on vocabulary acquisition, the role of motivation in SLA, and how interaction influences SLA. Some researchers interested in the role of interaction in SLA have focused on the language classroom and have investigated task-based learning and teaching, and how attention to grammatical forms affects SLA.

This resource collection provides background materials about SLA and gathers resources that directly address SLA in adult populations with a particular focus on the research areas mentioned above. Little research has been conducted with adult English language learners in ESL adult education contexts because the complexities of adult ESL (e.g., a diverse mobile population and varied learning contexts such as workplace, family literacy, and general ESL classes) make research in this field challenging. Although SLA research on adults has focused mostly on adults in academic contexts, research findings may be applicable to other populations and contexts.

While this is not a definitive list of SLA materials, it is representative of what is readily available online and in print. CAELA does not endorse any particular set of materials, and we encourage users of this collection to give thoughtful consideration to all resources and materials. This list was compiled by Donna Moss at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

CAELA Resources ERIC Database Journals and Newsletters Teacher Reference Books
Organizations Policy Issues Discussion Lists SLA Research

CAELA Resources

The following publications offer information that might be helpful to individuals interested in how adults learn second languages.


Many of our digests address instructional practices that have emerged from second language acquisition theory and research. You may want to review CAELA's digest index page at to see if any topics would be of interest to you. You could also search the CAELA ESL Resource Database for further resources.

Adult ESL books books from the Center for Applied Linguistics also include discussions about second language acquisition as it relates to teaching adult English language learners. Of particular interest may be Reading and Adult English Language Learners: A Review of the Research (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003), Preparing for Success: A Guide for Teaching Adult English Language Learners (Brigitte Marshall, 2002), Adult Biliteracy in the United States (Spener, 1994), Approaches to Adult ESL Literacy Education (Crandall & Peyton, 1993), and Literacy and Language Diversity in the United States (2nd edition) (Wiley, 2005). These books are available from the CAlstore.

The ERIC Database

You may find additional information, in the form of bibliographic references and citations, in the ERIC database. For access, go to: 
A good search of the ERIC database--most databases, in fact--begins with a search strategy that identifies the main concepts of the topic. In this case [adult ESL instruction], there are three: adults/adult education; ESL/limited English fluency; and reading/literacy.

A search of ERIC, then, would draw on descriptive terms (descriptors) that identify important aspects of those three concepts. Thus, descriptors chosen from ERIC's controlled vocabulary that you might want to use include some of the following


adult basic education English (second language) motivation
adult education limited English speaking interaction
adult learning second language acquisition comprehensible input
adult literacy second language instruction grammar
adult programs second language learning task-based learning

The following ERIC digests may have information and resources relevant to second language acquisition in adults.

Journals & Newsletters

Language Learning is a scientific journal concerned with theoretical issues in language learning. It publishes articles on a broad range of topics including child, second and foreign language acquisition, language education, literacy, and culture.

Language Learning & Technology is a refereed jouranl for second and foreign language educators. According to its Web site, the journal "seeks to disseminate research to foreign and second language educators in the U.S. and around the world on issues related to technology and language education." (

Language Teaching Research covers a wide range of topics in language teaching written by language researchers and educators. Some articles discuss current SLA research as it relates to language teaching.

Modern Language Journal focuses on questions and concerns about learning and teaching foreign and second languages. Publications include research studies, reports, editorials, and book reviews.

Second Language Research publishes theoretical and experimental papers on second language acquisition and second language performance.

Studies in Second Language Acquisition offers a "scientific discussion of issues in second and foreign language acquisition of any language." Publications include reports of experimental and qualitative studies, articles on current issues and concerns in the field, and book reviews.

TESOL Quarterly publishes articles of interest to people concerned with teaching English as a second and foreign language. It includes topics on research and teaching issues.

Teacher Reference Books

Brown, H.D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (4th ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education. This book presents an overview of the study of second language acquisition. The author discusses a broad range of topics including first language acquisition, theories of second language acquisition, sociocultural factors, individual factors, and communicative competence.

Brown, H.D. (2001). Teaching by principles (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education. This book discusses teaching practices that are grounded in principles of language learning. The book is written for new teachers and covers topics such as the history of language teaching; cognitive, affective, and linguistic principles of language learning; designing and implementing classroom lessons; and assessing language skills.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. This book is part of a series designed to introduce language study to readers who are new to the topic. The book includes an overview of SLA, readings on specific topics in SLA, a selection of annotated references, and a glossary of terms.

Gass, S. & Selinker, L. (2001). Second language acquisition: An introductory course (2nd ed.) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. This book is intended for undergraduate and graduate students from a wide variety of disciplines. The authors focus mainly on adult second language. Topics include an overview of the study of SLA, interlanguage development, the role of the native language on SLA, nonlanguage influences on SLA, and second language vocabulary acquisition.

Lightbown, P & Spada, N. (2003). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The authors discuss first language learning and the major theories of second language learning and their implications for instruction.

Mitchell, R. & Myers, F. (1998). Second language theories. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc. This book describes the current theories of second language learning and a brief history of second language acquisition research.


Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota supports research, dissemination of information and training related to second language learning, teaching, and assessment.

The American Association of Applied Linguistics. This is a professional association of people interested in the field of applied linguistics including language acquisition and second and foreign language teaching.

Policy Issues

National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (1998). Research agenda for adult ESL. Washington, DC: Author.

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2001). Adult ESL language and literacy instruction: A vision and action agenda for the 21st century. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.(2000). Program Standards for Adult Education ESOL Programs. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Discussion Lists

The Adult English Language electronic discussion list is sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy and moderated by staff at CAELA. Discussions focus on issues related specifically to adults learning English. Participants include ESL teachers, program administrators, policy makers, and other stakeholders who share resources, ideas, news, and concerns related to adult ESL. (The archives of discussions can also be searched by keyword from this Web page.)

SLART-L is an online discussion forum that focuses on second language acquisition research and teaching. The list is hosted by City University of New York. To subscribe, send the following message to subscribe slart-l firstname lastname

SLA Research on Learner Motivation, Interaction, and Vocabulary Development

The references listed below are just a small portion of the large body of research in three areas of SLA study: the affect of learner motivation on SLA, the role of interaction in SLA, and the role of vocabulary in SLA. If you are interested in studying these areas further, the articles have extensive reference lists to use to continue your own investigation.

Research on Motivation to Learn a Second Language

Research on the Role of Interaction in SLA

Research on the Role of Vocabulary in SLA

Research on Motivation to Learn a Second Language

Clement, R., Dšrnyei, Z., & Noels, K. A. (1994). Motivation, self-confidence, and group cohesion in the foreign language classroom. Language Learning, 44, 417-448. In this correlational study, 301 high school students in Hungary aged 17-18 answered a questionnaire assessing their attitude, anxiety, and motivation toward learning English. Statistical analysis of questionnaire data revealed that English achievement, attitude, and effort were related to self-confidence, motivation, and the learning environment.

Dšrnyei, Z. (2002). The motivational basis of language learning tasks. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Individual differences and instructed language learning (pp. 137-158). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. The primary purpose of this quasi-experimental and correlational study was to determine to what extent a learner's motivation during a task was influenced by a partner's motivation. Forty-four EFL learners in 5 intermediate level English classes participated in the study. Researchers looked at correlations between individual learner variables and task attitudes and second language performance.

Dšrnyei, Z. (2003). Attitudes, orientations, and motivations in language learning: Advances in theory, research, and applications. Language Learning, 53 (supplement 1), 3-32. This article provides an overview of recent theories and studies on motivation to learn a second or foreign language. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of motivation theory and research on instruction.

Dšrnyei, Z. & Csizer, K. (1998). Ten commandments for motivating language learners: Results of an empirical study. Language Teaching Research, 2, 203-229. (EJ59734). The article presents results of an empirical study on learner motivational strategies. The researchers surveyed 200 teachers of English as a foreign language. A statistical analysis of the data seemed to suggest ten primary strategies for motivating learners.

Dšrnyei, Z., & Kormos, J. (2000). The role of individual and social variables in oral task performance. Language Teaching Research, 4, 275-300. The researchers used a correlational research design to study the effects of language proficiency, motivation, social variables, and "willingness to communicate" on learners' engagement in oral argumentative tasks. Researchers collected two types of data (1) the number of words learners used and number of turns they took (learner output) in a task that involved a problem-solving activity, and (2) responses to a self-report questionnaire. Results seem to suggest that motivational and social factors have an impact of learner output.

Gardner, R. C. (1985). Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitude and motivation. London: Edward Arnold. Researchers in the field often refer to this classic book on motivation in SLA. The focus of the book is on how attitude and motivation affect achievement in learning second languages through formal education. The author begins by defining attitude and motivation; then reviews and evaluates research, investigating the role of attitudes and motivation in instructed SLA; and discusses the development of a variety of attitude and motivation measures. The book concludes with a discussion of areas for future research.

Masgoret, A. M. & Gardner, R. C. (2003). Attitudes, motivation, and second language learning: A meta-analysis of studies conducted by Gardner and associates. Language Learning, 53(supplement 1), 167-210.The purpose of this meta-analysis of studies conducted by Gardner and his associates was to report on the relationship between language achievement and attitudes and motivation. Results seem to suggest that achievement in a second language is positively related to attitudes toward the learning situation as well as integrative and instrumental motivation.

Noels, K. A., Clement, R., & Pelletier, L. G. (2003). Perceptions of teachers' communicative style and students' intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Modern Language Journal, 83, 23-34. This correlational study examines "how learners' perceptions of their teacher's communicative style, particularly the extent to which teachers are perceived to support students' autonomy and to provide useful feedback about students' learning progress" (p. 23) relate to students' intrinsic motivation (internal rewards such as a feeling of competence) and extrinsic motivation (external rewards such as a good grade). The study also investigated the link between these variables and learning outcomes including effort, anxiety, and language competence. The study suggests that intrinsic motivation is related positively to the effort a learner exerted to learn the second language and to greater self-evaluations of competence. In addition, in this study learners' perceptions of teachers communicative style were related to instrinsic motivation. The "more controlling and the less informative the students perceived the teacher to be, the lower students' intrinisc motivation was" (p. 23).

Noels, K. A., Pelletier, L. G., Clement, R., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). Why are you learning a second language? Motivational orientations and self-determination theory. Language Learning, 53 (supplement 1), 33-63. The researchers collected questionnaire data from 159 adults about their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as well as their lack of any motivation. Results seem to suggest that learners who feel that they are competent and independent have more intrinsic motivation. The results seem to support the contention that "language programs that emphasize autonomy will likely foster student motivation and potential success" (p. 53).

Spratt, M., Humphreys, G., & Chan, V. (2002). Autonomy and motivation: Which comes first? Language Teaching Research, 6, 245-266. This correlational study investigates whether autonomy precedes motivation or motivation precedes autonomy. The researchers analyzed questionnaire data from 508 EFL university students. The questionnaire addressed learners thoughts about (1) who (teacher or learner) is responsible for various aspects of in- and out-of-class learning, (2) learners' ability to manage in- and out-of-class learning, (3) their level of motivation, and (4) the extracurricular activities in which they used English. The researchers suggest that motivation may precede autonomy, but they also acknowledge that the relationship between autonomy and motivation may change. The researchers found that most learners engaged in extracurricular activities related to using English for communication and entertainment rather than activities related to studying English. They also found that the higher a learner's motivation, the more likely a learner was to participate in extracurricular activities using English.

Research on the Role of Interaction in SLA

Bygate, M. (2000). Introduction. Language Teaching Research, 4, 185-192. This is the introductory article to a special thematic issue of Language Teaching Research that focuses on the use of tasks in language teaching. The author discusses what teaching tasks are and the importance of studying them. Doughty, C. & Pica, T. (1986). "Information gap" tasks: Do they facilitate second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 305-325. The article reports on an experimental study that examined the effects of task type and participation pattern on classroom interaction. Findings seem to suggest that required information exchange is important for generating conversational modifications (e.g., clarification and confirmation) in classroom interactions. In the study, learner group and paired interactions produced more modification than did teacher-fronted interactions.

Doughty, C. & Williams, J. (1998). Pedagogical choices in focus on form. In C. Doughty C. & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (pp. 197-261). New York: Cambridge University Press. The authors present a theoretical discussion of the research findings reported in the book as they relate to second language instruction. The authors posit "the primary concern of the teacher should always be the question of how to integrate attention to form and meaning, either simultaneously or in some interconnected sequence of tasks and techniques that are implemented throughout the curriculum" (p. 261).

Ellis, R. (1999) Learning a second language through interaction. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. This book presents current theory and recent research on the role of interaction in second language learning. The book includes a number of research studies that examine the relationship between interaction and SLA. The book concludes with a discussion on classroom interactions to promote language learning.

Ellis, R. (2000). Task-based research and language pedagogy. Language Teaching Research, 4, 193-220. The author discusses two theoretical perspectives-psycholinguistic and socio-cultural-of task-based language use and learning and their relevance for language teaching. The author argues that they are not incompatible and that research from both perspectives is important to advance the understanding of task-based instruction.

Ellis, R., Basturkmen, H., & Loewen, S. (2001). Learner uptake in communicative ESL lessons. Language Learning, 51, 281-318. In this descriptive study the researchers analyzed 12 hours of classroom data on the types and characteristics of focus on form episodes and learner uptake (a learner uses a feature correctly that they previously could not use). Learner uptake was higher in learner-initiated focus on form than in teacher-initiated focus on form.

Long, M. H. (2000). Focus on form in task-based language teaching. In R. D. Lambert & E. Shohamy (Eds.), Language policy and pedagogy: Essays in honor of A. Ronald Walton (pp. 179-192). Philadelphia: John Benjamins. The researcher reviews three traditions of second language research and teaching-focus of forms (teaching isolated linguistic features in a prescribed sequence), focus on meaning (little or no attention to linguistic features), and focus on form (paying attention to features as problems occur). The author argues for a focus on form approach to language teaching.

Mackey, A. (1999). Input, interaction, and second language development: An empirical study of question formation in ESL. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 557-58. This empirical study investigates whether conversational interaction facilitates second language development with regard to question formation and if development is related to the nature of interaction and level of learner involvement. Thirty-four adult ESL learners participated in the study. Evidence seems to suggest that conversational interaction led to second language development. Those participants who actively engaged in interactions produced more of the higher level question forms than those who did not.

Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2001). Does type of instruction make a difference? Substantive findings from a meta-analytic review. Language Learning, 51 (Suppl. 1), 157-213. This article reports on a meta-analysis of research on whether one type of instruction is more effective than another. The researchers identified all experimental and quasi-experimental studies published between 1980 and 1998 that investigated the effectiveness of instructional treatments.

Pica, T. (1994). Research on negotiation: What does it reveal about second-language learning conditions, processes, and outcomes? Language Learning, 44, 493-527. The author reviews research on the second language learning environment and the input that it makes available to second language learners. She reviews research on social and linguisitic dimensions of the language-learning environment, the study of speech directed to language learners, and theoretical claims and empirical evidence for the role of speech modifications in second language learning.

Sullivan, J. & Kaplan, N.A. (2004). Beyond the dictogloss: Learner-generated attention to form in a collaborative, communicative classroom activity. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 19, 65-89. The researchers report on a pilot study to examine the quantity and quality of focus of learners' attention to form during a meaning-focused lesson. During the activity, students in an upper-intermediate intensive English program in the United States worked in pairs to construct a narrative describing a 4-minute scene from an episode of the Mr. Bean show. In the first activity, one partner watched half of the scene and narrated the action to the other student, who could not see the video and took notes. Then the students reversed roles and completed the notes for the video-segment. In the next activity, the students had to create a written narrative of the whole scene. They could not look at each other's notes, so they had to rely on oral input. Both students' written accounts had to be identical, but they could not look at each other's papers, so they had to compare texts orally to correct any differences in their narratives. The researchers recorded all interactions. Results seemed to indicate that there was substantial attention to a wide range of forms including word-level, sentence-level, and discourse-level issues.

Research on the Role of Vocabulary in SLA

Coady, J. & Huckin, T. (Eds.) (1997). Second language vocabulary acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press. This book provides an overview of current theory and research in vocabulary learning. It presents papers on a range of issues such as measuring vocabulary knowledge and the role of vocabulary in second language reading, writing, speaking and listening. It presents empirical research in tracking vocabulary acquisition, how passive vocabulary of rare words and complex vocabulary by advanced learners increases with study, and the role of vocabulary instructional techniques on vocabulary acquisition. (For a detailed abstract, see Research on Reading Development of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography, Adams & Burt, 2002)

De la Fuente, M.J. (2002). Negotiation and oral acquisition of L2 vocabulary: The roles of input and output in the receptive and productive acquisition of words. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 81-112. This experimental study investigated three questions. Does negotiated interaction benefit second language vocabulary comprehension? What is the effect of type of interaction on second language vocabulary acquisition? What is the effect of type of interaction on second language productive vocabulary acquisition? Results suggest that negotiation (interactions between speakers that occur when there is a breakdown in communication) facilitates comprehension and acquisition of second language vocabulary.

Ellis, R. & He, X. (1999). The roles of modified input and output in incidental acquisition of word meanings. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 285-301. This experimental study investigated the effects of various types of exposure to and use of new vocabulary words on learners' comprehension and acquisition of these words. One group of participants only listened to explanations of new words. The second group was able to ask questions about the new words. The third group heard explanations of new words and then performed a task with a partner using the new words. The third group outscored the others on all the posttests. The researchers conclude that providing learners with opportunities "to use and negotiate new vocabulary items" (p. 299) seems to create conditions for incidental vocabulary acquisition.

Ellis, R., Tanaka, Y., & Yamazaki, A. (1994). Classroom interaction, comprehension and the acquisition of L2 word meanings. Language Learning, 44, 449-491. This article reports on the results of two experimental studies that examined how various types of input effect comprehension and retention of new words. Results suggested that interaction resulted in better comprehension and led to retention of more words than input with no interaction. In the interactive groups, there was no difference in comprehension or the number of new words retained between those participants that actively negotiated meaning and those that listened to the negotiation.

Laufer, B. (1997). The lexical plight in second language reading: Words you don't know, words you think you know, and words you can't guess. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (pp. 20-34). New York: Cambridge University Press. This article presents a theoretical discussion of three vocabulary problems than may influence reading comprehension: a limited vocabulary, misinterpretations of words that readers don't recognize as unfamiliar, and the inability to guess unknown words correctly. The author concludes that learners need a large sight vocabulary to address these issues. (For a detailed abstract, see Research on Reading Development of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography, Adams & Burt, 2002)

Paribakht, T.S. & Wesche, M. (1997). Vocabulary enhancement activities and reading for meaning in second language vocabulary acquisition. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (pp. 174-200). New York: Cambridge University Press. The researchers conducted this quasi-experimental study to investigate whether reading comprehension activities accompanied with vocabulary enhancement activities (Reading Plus) led to more effective vocabulary acquisition of selected words than reading additional texts that incorporated the same words (Reading Only). The researchers conducted a pilot study to field test procedures and materials. The main study involved two ESL classes in a university setting with learners from a variety of first language backgrounds. One class received the Reading Plus treatment and the other received the Reading Only treatment. Both treatments resulted in significant gains in learners' vocabulary knowledge, but learners receiving the Reading Plus treatment had greater gains than those receiving the other treatment.

Qian, D.D. (1999). Assessing the roles of depth and breadth of vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension. The Canadian Modern Language Journal, 56, 262-305. The purpose of this experimental study was to investigate what role the depth (e.g., knowing pronunciation, spelling, multiple meaning, how the word combines with other words) and breadth (the number of words one knows) of vocabulary knowledge play in reading comprehension. Seventy-four learners in intensive English programs in Canada participated in the study. Results suggest that depth of knowledge is related to the breadth of knowledge and that both have a positive effect on reading comprehension. (For a detailed abstract, see Research on Reading Development of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography, Adams & Burt, 2002)

Wesche, M.B., & Paribakht, T.S. (2000). Reading-based exercises in second language learning: An introspective study. Modern Language Journal, 84, 196-213. This descriptive study is a follow-up of a study conducted in 1997 (see Paribakht & Wesche above) in which learners who received reading and follow-up vocabulary exercises gained more vocabulary knowlege than learners who only encounted words through exposure to different texts. In this study, the researchers wanted to understand how the follow-up vocabulary activities used in the first study promote different kinds of vocabulary learning. University ESL students read a text and completed eight text-related vocabulary exercises. Using think-aloud procedures, the researchers gathered data on learners' perceptions on their work and the utility of the tasks for vocabulary learning. Learners' comments and use of new words indicated that learning took place. The researchers identified seven types of new word knowledge: word recognition, learning new meanings of known words, different uses of words, grammatical properties, word derivations, metalinguistic knowledge, and certainty of word knowledge.