Rod Ellis – Principles of Instructed Second Language Acquisition

Principle 1:

Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence;

  • A notional-functional approach (Wilkins, 1976) lends itself perfectly to the teaching of formulaic sequences and may provide an ideal foundation for instruction in the early stages;

Principle 2:

Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning;

Principle 3:

Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form;

  • through inductive or deductive grammar lessons. An inductive approach to grammar teaching is designed to encourage learners to notice pre-selected forms in the input to which they are exposed; a deductive approach seeks to make learners aware of the explicit grammatical rule;
  • through communicative tasks designed to provide opportunities for learners to practice specific grammatical structures while focused primarily on meaning;
  • through opportunities for learners to plan how they will perform a communicative task before they start it and/or by corrective feedback (i.e., drawing attention to learners’ errors during or after the performance of a task);

Principle 4:

Instruction needs to focus on developing implicit knowledge of the second language while not neglecting explicit knowledge;

  • In the view of most researchers, competence in a second language is primarily a matter of implicit knowledge.

Principle 5:

Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s built-in syllabus;

  • Adopt a zero grammar approach. That is, employ a task based approach that makes no attempt to predetermine the linguistic content of a lesson.
  • Ensure that learners are developmentally ready to acquire a specific target feature. However, this is probably impractical as teachers have no easy way of determining what individual students know. It would necessitate a highly individualized approach to cater to differences in developmental level among the students.
  • Focus the instruction on explicit rather than implicit knowledge, as explicit knowledge is not subject to the same developmental constraints as implicit knowledge. That is, learners can learn facts about the grammar of a language in any order, but they will follow a definite sequence.

Principle 6:

Successful instructed language learning requires extensive second language input;

  • Ideally, this means that the second language needs to become the medium as well as the object of instruction.
  • Teachers also need to create opportunities for students to obtain input outside the classroom. This can be achieved most easily by providing extensive reading programs based on carefully selected graded readers suited to the level of the students,

Principle 7:

Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output;

  • Language production (output) serves to generate better input through the feedback elicited by learners’ efforts at production.
  • Output obliges learners to pay attention to grammar.
  • Output allows learners to test hypotheses about the target language grammar.
  • Output helps to automatize existing knowledge.
  • Output provides opportunities for learners to develop discourse skills, for example, by producing long turns in conversation.
  • Output helps learners develop a personal voice by steering conversation to topics to which they are interested in contributing.
  • Output provides the learner with auto-input—that is, learners can attend to the input provided by their own language production.

(Based on Swain, 1985; Skehan, 1998; and Ellis, 200

Principle 8:

The opportunity to interact in the second language is central to developing second language proficiency;

  • To create an acquisition-rich classroom, teachers need
  • to create contexts of language use where students have a reason to attend to language
  • allow students to initiate topics and to control topic development,
  • provide opportunities for learners to use the language to express their own personal meanings,
  • help students to participate in language-related activities that are beyond their current level of      proficiency, and
  • offer a full range of contexts that provide opportunities for students to engage in a full performance in the language.

(Ellis, 1999; Johnson 1995)

Principle 9:

Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners;

  • Dornyei (2001) makes the obvious point that “the best motivational intervention is simply to improve the quality of our teaching” (p. 26). He points in particular to the need for “instructional clarity” by “explaining things simply” and “teaching at a pace that is not too fast and not too slow.” Teachers also need to accept that it is their responsibility to ensure that their students stay motivated, and they should not complain that students do not bring any motivation to the classroom.

Principle 10:

In assessing learners’ second language proficiency, it is important to examine free as well as controlled production.

  • Metalinguistic judgment (e.g., a grammaticality judgment test) Selected response (e.g., multiple choice) Constrained constructed response (e.g., gap-filling exercises) Free constructed response (e.g., a communicative task


These general principles have drawn on a variety of theoretical perspectives, although predominantly on what Lantolf (1996) refers to as the computational model of second language learning. This model has its limitations and is open to criticism, in particular that it is not socially sensitive because it fails to acknowledge the importance of social context and social relations in the language learning process. It would be clearly useful to attempt to formulate a set of principles based on the broader conceptualization of second language acquisition—one that emphasizes the importance of the social as well as the cognitive aspects.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s