Best practices: some non-Krashenian insights from the research

Thnaks to research-lover Eric Herman, I’ve been reading Lightbrown and Spada’s How Languages Are Learned (4th ed.) from Oxford University Press.  This indispensable reading summarises a load of research on everything to do with second-language acquisition.  Two phrases jumped out at me: “Comprehension of meaningful language is the foundation of language acquisition” and “Considerable research and experience challenge the hypothesis that comprehensible input is enough.”

Krashen pretty much nailed 80% of language learning: we learn via comprehensible input in safe and enjoyable settings.  If that C.I. can be made compelling and repeatable enough, we learn more, or faster, or both.  HOWEVER…there is more to learning a language than understanding it.  So…here are some Lightbrown and Spada-mentioned insights from research.

a) people need a minimum of 16 meaningful exposures to a vocab item to remember it.  TPRS will serve us well here.

b) fossilised errors— recurring grammatically wrong patterns of speech or interpretation– will continue unless there are deliberate teacher interventions.  C.I. is not enough, at least not in a classroom setting.  With first language acquisition, or immersion, the sheer volume of input will correct most– but not all– errors.

The classic example is use of the Spanish phrase me gustan los tacos (“I like tacos”).  Learners will often figure out that “gusta–” means “like”, but will fail to acquire the -n that you need for plurals.  Why specific feedback is necessary is open for debate, but it is necessary.  TPRS pop-ups useful here.

The question of why this is necessary is up in the air.  Some think the quantity of input in a classroom is low; others see this problem as stemming from various interlanguage processes.

c) Specific training in output– specifically in writing– is necessary.  While the effects of writing training (drawing attention to specific parts of grammar or vocab or punctuation, etc, or asking for error correction, and other strategies) are not huge in comparison to the effect of quality C.I., they are significant. For example, in the New Brunswick E.S.L. study, the focused instruction kids did outperform the C.I. kids in writing.  However, what was astonishing was, the C.I. kids did 90% as well as the focused-instruction kids with no teacher guidance or feedback.  There is speculation on why this is, and it has something to do with the idea that understanding and output, while related, are not exactly the same brain system.  So…if you wanted to do only ONE THING for second-language acquisition and writing output, it should be comprehensible input.  If you want kids to be noticeably better, give them some specific meaningful instruction in, and feedback on, writing…but only in upper levels.  Until a massive amount of language has been heard and read, feedback has limited effects at best.

d) Some specific training in recognising “weird” (i.e. non-native) grammatical forms is necessary for acquisition.  For example, English and Spanish pronoun orders are different:  in English we say “I ate it,” while in Spanish it’s “Yo lo comi” (“I it ate”).  Research suggests that unless we provide a LOT of focused C.I. that (a) uses this structure and (b) draws attention to it, we will get delayed, incorrect or no acquisition of the rule.  TPRS again will serve us well here– do those comprehension checks!

e)  There is zero evidence to suggest that “smarter” people are “better” at picking up languages.  Smarter– i.e. academically proficient symbol-manipulators, rule-followers, etc (you all know who I am talking about here!) are better at learning about languages…but in terms of acquisition, there is little difference between “types” of students.

f) Readers must know 90-95% of the vocab in the text to be able to read independently.  This argues for MUCH more use of “easy” readers in a 2nd language classroom and much less “hard” and non-teacher-supported reading.

g)  The best thing a teacher can do for S.L.A. is to allow kids to experience authentic success.  This means kids should (a) understand everything, which feels good, (b) find it interesting (ay,..there’s the rub) and (c) feel safe and comfortable in class.  The links between motivation and acquisition, despite “common sense” thinking, are unclear.

h) Free voluntary reading matters…but FVR with teacher interaction etc is much more effective.

i) For oral error correction, friendly comprehensible recasts (restatements) work best.  Grammar explanations do little or nothing most of the time.  However, recasts don’t do much, and there is disagreement about why they do sometimes work.

j) Sociocultural competence matters…but not that much.  Yes, people need to be taught target-language stuff having to do with how that culture works.  E.g. in Spanish, people need to learn when/where to use the usted (“You sir/madame”) form.  Knowing this helps…but it’s far less important than people getting loads of C.I.

The upshot?  Krashen, 30 years ago, got it 85% right.  The other 15% is examined in Lightbrown & Spada.  Go read it.



  1. if i’m not wrong, Krashen doesn’t only talk about the quality of the input (required for fluency and for success in learning a language). He talks about quantity too. Massive amounts of CI are needed. And even then, still some elements of the language are late acquired, so extra amount of CI is required. So I guess many of the “fossilised errors” talked about in b) are just structures that haven’t been yet acquired. Students just need a lot more exposure to those structures. In my humble opinion the most important idea that many students and teachers fail to understand is that comprehension develops a whole lot faster than production of the language. The consequence is that they end up thinking that if students don’t show progress in production or accuracy, they are not making progress. Then, if students don’t show progress quickly, something is “wrong” and something has to be done and then output ends up being forced just to please ourselves, just to get deceived, to have the illusion that students are making progress.

  2. While it’s true that multiple exposures are generally necessary for students of foreign language to retain long-term memory of a vocabulary item, a recent return into age-old memory techniques that include Method of Loci/memory palaces, memory journeys, etc. show that even one or two exposures to a new word may be enough IF learners take the time to develop such techniques. The question then concerns how we can apply such learning to the classroom.

    1. The problem with memory palaces and other memory techniques is that these are conscious learning. When we are operating in target language, we often do not have time to get into “reflection” mode where we pause and hunt around in memory for that word etc. I agree that these tecniques work…but probably not in languages classroom.

      Remember that the *real* test of acquisition is automaticity. If you do it without thinking, you have acquired it.

      1. Good point about the difficulties of applying it in the classroom. I have a suspicion, however, that methods of learning that employ devices such as memory palaces and automaticity need not be mutually exclusive. I haven’t personally delved enough into these memory techniques to say for sure, but if a word is learned and solidified in memory using one of these techniques, automaticity can be developed thereafter, whereas with a method that relies on multiple exposures just for the sake of recognition requires that the learner read or hear a word many times before he even processes that he’s seen that word before. Using a memory palace or another method of the like, the word is recognizable within a couple sightings, after which the learner may use the word while speaking or in another way to develop automaticity. Numerous polyglots and hyperpolyglots, as imprecise as the word “polyglot” may be and as dubious as some of their claims to multilingualism may be, typically cite these methods as being responsible for their ability to retain vast amounts of vocabulary within short periods of time. We could chalk that up to innate ability or even claim that their brains are formed differently, but then why is it that each one I’ve read about or heard from advocates these or similar methods? Surely some of them have made significant achievements in language learning in order to garner the attention they’ve received.

        Nonetheless, a practical classroom application is lacking. I think it’s more of an issue of how we address memory throughout the educational system. Some people take a small percentage of the beginning of each day, week, month, and/or year to plan the activities and duties that are in store for them and then they formulate a method of attack. I understand the somewhat tangential nature of my post, but memory is foundational to learning of all kinds – and it plays an indispensable role in language acquisition and learning – so why is it that we dismiss ideas of memory techniques outright when, if we can increase effectiveness and/or efficiency in memory by even 10%, we will have made leaps and bounds in all fields? Perhaps an investment in the educational system in memorization techniques will pay dividends, especially as more and more people experience the benefits of the approach.

  3. I love this blog, but it is nearly impossible to follow up on most of your citations — is there a bibliography page I’m missing? A citation such as “Lightbown [not Lightbrown] and Spada (2013)” would be more useful if it included a page number.

      1. Yes, and I bought the book in paper form . . .and could not locate the quotes cited on this blog with no page number. I finally bought the Kindle version for another $30 so I could search electronically.

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