What We Know About Second Language Acquisition: A Synthesis From Four Perspectives

Issue/Topic: English Language Learner/Bilingual
Author(s): Dixon, L.; Zhao, Jing; Shin, Jee-Young; Wu, Shuang; Su, Jung-Hsuan; Burgess-Brigham, Renata; Gezer, Melike; Snow, Catherine
Organization(s): American Educational Research Association
Publication: Review of Educational Research
Published On: 2/15/2012

The number of youth entering school who speak a language other than English at home is increasing much more rapidly than the overall school-aged population. Educators are challenged to help these youth reach the level of proficiency required for learning sophisticated academic content through English. Progress in meeting the educational challenges of second language learning and teaching has been hampered by the failure to integrate information from across several fields of relevant research.

To demonstrate the value of integrating information from four bodies of work (foreign language education, child language research, sociocultural studies and psycholinguistics) in thinking about educational questions--in this case, perspectives on second language acquisition

What are the optimal conditions for second language acquisition?
  • There is no "one best way" to educate second language learners.
  • The quality of instruction and sufficient time in second language reading instruction matter.
  • Explicit instruction about grammatical features of the new language is beneficial.
  • The opportunity to use a new language with peers is advantageous.
  • Home environment matters: Optimal conditions for second language learners in second language-majority contexts include: parent and grandparent education, strong home literacy practices, opportunities for informal second language use, well-designed and well-implemented educational programs specifically for second language learners, and sufficient time for second language literacy instruction.
  • Bilingual education, particularly two-way programs, is supported by several studies.

What are the characteristics of excellent or unsuccessful second language learners?

  • Aptitude and motivation are characteristics that appear to make the largest difference in second language acquisition.

What are the characteristics of excellent or unsuccessful second language teachers?

  • Teachers must possess adequate proficiency in the language their students are learning. 
  • Teachers with a broad understanding of linguistics and culture were better able to build on student progress or student need, whereas teachers with less such knowledge provided more formulaic and/or confusing input to second language learners.
  • Desire to teach well
  • Effective teachers had classrooms where instruction was clearly organized and students knew exactly what was expected. At least some proficiency in the students' first language was an important skill.

What are reasonable expectations for speed and accomplishment for second language learners of different ages?

  • Young second language learners are likely ultimately to be successful at second language learning, but only after several years, and they do not typically catch up with their monolingual peers in areas such as reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge, even after several years. With systemic instruction, however, they can make rapid progress and gain proficiency in reading despite their lower oral skills.  
  • The belief that "younger is better" should be rejected. Holding hours of instruction constant, older learners perform better on measures of second language proficiency. However, second language learners of all ages are more likely to struggle with grammar or pronunciation, especially if they start after age 12.
  • Research indicates 3 to 7 years is a realistic time frame for second language learners to master a second language.
  • Skills in learners' primary (first) language affect the rate of second language acquisition.

Has information generated by the four research perspectives (foreign language education, child language research, sociocultural studies and psycholinguistics) influenced the formulation of educational policies for second language learners in the United States?

  • Research from the four perspectives is supportive, but not conclusive, regarding the benefits of first language instruction for second language learners.
  • No research from any of the perspectives indicates that the majority of second language learners can gain sufficient English to succeed in a mainstream classroom after only one year. 

NOTE: Results must be viewed cautiously; most of the studies reviewed for this question lacked randomization and adequate controls and were investigated only with a small sample, weaknesses that are common in educational research. 

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

  • There is no “one best way” to educate second language learners.
  • Evidence supports two-way bilingual education at the preschool level and some two-way programs--with voluntary enrollment--have been found effective at preK-8 levels.
  • More high-quality research needs to be done to illuminate what makes excellent or unsuccessful second language teachers, particularly teachers in mainstream classrooms with many second language learners.  
  • The support system for second language learners should reflect that mastery of a new language will most likely take 3 to 7 years.
  • Policies should address issues regarding identification of second language learners who may need more support or who may excel in second language learning.
  • Policies should incorporate research findings from each of the four research perspectives when addressing second language acquisition.

Access full text: http://rer.sagepub.com/content/82/1/5.abstract

Research Design:
Research Synthesis

Prekindergarten through 12th grade

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Out of 4,457 potentially relevant studies, a total of 71 peer-reviewed journal articles from 1997-2011 met criteria.


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