English is taught in different contexts around the world, yet finding the best approach is often a challenge for educators. The impact of findings in second language acquisition (SLA) has been questioned by linguists such as Sheen and Ellis, who claimed that context has not been taken into account (Tragant & Muñoz, 2004). However, the practical dimension of SLA lies in ‘the promotion of experiential methodology as well as of leaming activities for the classroom’ (Tragant & Muñoz, 2004: 199), suggesting that SLA theory should guide English Language Teaching (Krashen, 1985). While the most important findings in SLA research include Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and Krashen’s Monitor theory, this article argues that it is the manner in which they have been embraced yet challenged that has had an impact on ELT. This is visible in the development of practices such as communicative language teaching and task-based learning, as I will discuss later.

The impact of behaviourism

In response to the restrictions of the Grammar Translation method, based on sentence translation, researchers drew on behaviourist theory for the formulation of their practical recommendations, as exemplified by Howatt’s (1984) allusion to structures and repetition. Based on Watson’s experiment, conditioning results from a procedure that involves a stimulus, response and reinforcement. The impact on ELT was manifestly apparent in audiolingualism, which relied on drilling1, substitution and a quest for accuracy (Harmer, 2001). Teaching this way, however, was devoid of context and a contrastive analysis was needed to pinpoint differences between the learners’ first and target language (Harmer, 2001; Mitchell & Myles, 2004).

1 drilling: the repetition of a specific structure following modelling on behalf of teacher

Structural-situational teaching would introduce the contextual element absent from audiolingualism by means of the PPP structure, consisting of presentation, practice and production of a given structure. This approach would support the interface hypothesis, which substantiates the impact of explicit teaching on implicit knowledge (Ellis, 2006). Yet it was primarily teacher-centred, and repetition still had its say via cue-response drills or choral and individual drilling, which may account for Bruton & Castagnero’s contention that behaviourism still affects language teaching today (Harmer, 2001).

Chomsky and Universal Grammar

Different authors agree on the impact of Noam Chomsky, who suggested that children’s innate faculty guides them in learning, questioning the validity of rule teaching and error correction (Thornbury, 1997). In Syntactic Structures, he supported the ‘creativity and uniqueness of individual sentences’, thereby undermining structural linguistic theory (Chomsky, 1957; Richards & Rogers, 2001: 153). Mitchell & Myles (2004: 54) claim that the importance of Universal Grammar lies in the fact that it: ‘… provides a detailed descriptive framework which enables researchers to formulate well-defined hypotheses about the task facing the learner, and to analyse learner language in a more focused manner’.

The process of discovery inherent in inductive teaching, mentioned by authors such as Ellis (2006), reflects the manner in which learners are acquiring this new lexicon, which Chomsky sees as the main difference between languages. His ideas, however, have been criticised for their focus on syntax and on the nature of the second language linguistic system, thereby excluding psychological and social elements related to learning (Mitchell & Myles, 2004).

Acquisition and learning

The term ‘second language’ has been broadly defined as a language other than the ‘mother tongue’ or ‘native language’ (Mitchell & Myles, 2004). Harmer explores the distinction between acquisition and learning, the former being related to one’s first language and the latter to studying a language in a classroom context (2001). Initially suggested by Palmer, who distinguished ‘spontaneous’ – linked to spoken language – from ‘studial’ capabilities – related to literacy –, a major concern has been to try to emulate first-language acquisition in the classroom context, despite the ‘massive exposure’ it usually entails, whose replication may be considerably challenging (Harmer, 2001; 49; Lightbown & Spada, 2006). However, authors such as Butterworth & Harris, have claimed that language acquisition also involves aspects that are not innate (Mitchell & Myles, 2004). Factors suggested by Penfield’s Critical Period Hypothesis come into play here, yet Lightbown claims that in a classroom ‘native-like mastery of a target language is rarely attained’, even during youth (2003: 8). This is due to limited exposure, yet may depend on other variables such as the learner’s background and cultural context.

“.....in order to acquire a second language

subconsciously, one needs a relaxed

setting – or ‘low-affective filter’ – that would allow information to be accessed spontaneously when needed

in future.”

The distinction between acquisition and learning was taken a step further by Krashen (1985), who believed the former was subconscious and the latter conscious. He claimed that, in order to acquire a second language subconsciously, one needs a relaxed setting – or ‘low-affective filter’ – that would allow information to be accessed spontaneously when needed in future. The focus is on meaning and comprehensible input, which he believes should be roughly-tuned (natural) rather than finely-tuned (adapted to the learner’s level), thereby imitating child-parent interaction (Krashen, 1985). The importance of his findings lie in the fact that receptive skills were prioritised over productive skills, central to the Natural Approach, as opposed to what happened in behaviourist teaching, where correct habits stemmed primarily from oral practice (Mitchell & Myles, 2004).

Studies suggest that exposure to comprehensible input – one level higher than the learner’s current one – has yielded positive results as far as acquisition is concerned, particularly in the case of reading, where students ‘performed as well as or better than students in a more traditional, modified audio-lingual program’ (Lightbown, 2003: 5). As such, Krashen claims that metalinguistic information and corrective feedback are likely to hinder acquisition despite improving learning, an idea later echoed by Lightbown & Spada (2006) when comparing natural settings with the classroom. Nonetheless, from personal experience, when interacting with parents in that ‘special kind of language’ (Harmer, 2001: 49), corrective feedback does occur very often, even if primarily in the form of recast, or reformulation. While the acquisition-learning distinction has been subject to criticism, it has been supported by authors such as Zobl (1995), who substantiates its impact on ELT by exploring the impact of rules and metalinguistic information.

Based on the multidimensional model, Pienemann’s Processability theory supported the idea that learners need to acquire procedural skills in order to process the formal properties of second languages; this accounted for his subsequent Teachability Hypothesis, which claimed that teachers must respect learners’ stages of acquisition (Mitchell & Myles, 2004). Nonetheless, this idea has been challenged by Lightbown, who contends that ‘progress will not necessarily show up as greater accuracy’ (2003: 5). He substantiates his claim against developmental sequences by mentioning practical constraints such as the scarcity of descriptions available and the difficulty in determining students’ level (Lightbown, 2005). Personal experience suggests this is particularly evident in large classes and especially when taking into account all language skills, amongst which there may be disparities as far as the level is concerned.

The communicative nature of language

While Chomsky contrasted ‘competence’ with ‘performance’ (Chomsky, 1965). The nature of the term ‘competence’ has been subject to debate over the years, with Stern viewing it as proficiency and Savignon viewing it as dynamic (Taylor, 1988). For both Chomsky and Taylor, however, it appears to be static (Celce-Murcia et al, 1995). Based on Hymes’ reaction to Chomsky’s view of competence strongly linked to grammar, Canale & Swain (1980) elaborated their model of communicative competence, consisting of grammatical, strategic and sociolinguistic competencies, which would be expanded to include ‘actional’ and ‘discourse’ competencies, thus incorporating dynamic elements (Celce-Murcia et al, 1995).

Reflecting the need for the communicative and functional potential of language, as well as Widdowson’s (1978) quest for the ability to express meanings, communicative language teaching (CLT) embodies the transition from an approach based on grammatical competence, which prioritised accuracy over fluency in a teacher-centred classroom, to one where the focus is on interaction (Richards, 2006), thereby challenging Krashen’s claim supporting the sufficiency of input (Skehan, 2003). Kumaravadivelu (2006), however, contends that CLT also drew on Austin’s Speech act theory and Halliday’s functional perspective, whilst Harmer considers the notions and communicative functions explored by Wilkins (1997). On one hand, the evidence put forward suggests that CLT stemmed from a willingness to challenge Chomsky’s contention regarding competence yet, on the other, it appears to support his stance regarding linguistic creativity.

The interaction between CLT and its environment is particularly visible in Howatt’s (1984) distinction between the ‘weak’ form – which he claims has become standard practice – and the ‘strong’ form. He suggests that ‘if the former could be described as “learning to use” English, the latter involves “using English to learn it”’ (1984: 279). As Littlewood substantiates the need for non-communicative activities to provide learners with the setting to communicate in the context of a weak approach (Nunan, 1987), Lightbown (2003) advocates the inclusion of focus on form in CLT, based on previous research. Nunan goes further by questioning the presence of genuine communication in CLT altogether, which in his view consists of features such as ‘the uneven distribution of information’ and ‘the negotiation of meaning’ (1987: 137). This alludes to Seedhouse’s contention that replicating communication in a classroom is both ‘paradoxical and unattainable’, when advocating an institutional discourse approach (1996: 16). Some business students in my context have yet asked for classes devoted exclusively to conversation in order to enhance their approach to socialising and networking, both for professional and personal reasons.

CLT has also been questioned for its cultural inadequacy, as well as its inherent demanding features, affecting both teachers and students (Harmer, 2001). It can be argued that CLT is nonetheless a strong indicator of the impact of SLA theory, for the ‘dramatic change in attitudes’ that it has brought to ELT, as claimed by Thompson (1996: 14). It has been claimed that CLT is evident today in its ‘classic form’ (Richards & Rodgers, 2001), yet I believe that this depends primarily on the cultural context, as substantiated by research led by Hu (2002) and Orafi (2009), amongst others.

The task-based nature of language learning

In line with Krashen’s Zero-grammar approach, a focus on the completion of tasks at the expense of grammar is at the heart of task-based learning (TBL). Its foundations were laid by Prabhu’s Bangalore Project (Thornbury, 1997), as the term ‘communicative activity’ frequently used by SLA researchers was gradually being replaced by ‘task’ (Skehan, 2014; Kumaravadivelu, 2006). Long advocates a Focus-on-Form approach, allowing learners to be concerned with form while negotiating meaning (Skehan, 2003). It seems to prioritise procedural knowledge, which was distinguished from declarative knowledge in the ACT Model for its focus on process (Mitchell & Myles, 2004). While the focus has been increasingly placed on fluency rather than on accuracy, corrective feedback has been addressed on different occasions, supported by authors such as Ellis (2006) and Lightbown (2003), yet rejected by others (Truscott, 2007). Echoing Lightbown’s contribution, recast continues to be a successful tool in my teaching context due to learners’ past experiences and expectations. As such, Batstone (2012) advocates taking a more-context sensitive approach to task-based language teaching, willing to take into account learner interaction and the design of tasks, echoing previous research mentioned by Kumaravadivelu (2006).


I would like to conclude that, despite the plurality of findings in SLA research, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and Krashen’s Hypotheses are amongst those that have played a major role in ELT, especially due to the way they were adopted yet questioned, as occurred during the development of the model of communicative competence. As discussed, the impact of SLA research is evident in the development of communicative language teaching and task-based learning, yet the extent to which these have been implemented worldwide can only be substantiated, I believe, by further research in the field.


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Daniel Costa works as a language educator for Qatar University, International House and Woospeak, teaching English, Italian, Portuguese and French. He has written for other publications such as Etp, the Journal of English as an International Language, the International Journal of English Language Teaching. He holds a CELTA, a BET, a COLT, an MA in English Language Teaching, and has pursued additional studies in philosophy and history at the universities of London and Birmingham.