Professional Development

The key issues in second language learning

Anne Burns

Edited by Anne Burns and Jack C. Richards, and due to be published next week, The Cambridge Guide to Learning English as a Second Language provides comprehensive coverage of second language learning theory.

We spoke to Professor Anne Burns, to get her view on her vision for the book and the important topics it covers.

1. What inspired you to plan and produce this Cambridge Guide… volume?

My co-editor, Jack Richards, and I noticed that there are lots of research publications on English language learning/second language acquisition in our field. However, not many of them seem to focus on how teachers could use the theoretical ideas for direct application in the classroom.

Also, some topics didn’t seem to receive much attention, like specific skills and systems (e.g. listening, pronunciation), or particular groups of learners (e.g. young learners), or types of programs (e.g. English for the workplace).

When we invited the chapter authors to contribute, we asked them to bear a teacher readership in mind, and to point out the implications of learning theory and research for teaching and assessment. We wanted teachers to have a resource to use that could help them bring theoretical ideas into their teaching.

2. The focus of the book is on language learning. How can teachers use it to inform their teaching practice?

We invited the authors of each chapter because of their expertise in a particular topic. We asked them to discuss perspectives on learning from their own particular theoretical standpoint. In other words, we wanted to provide teachers with a wide range of language learning theories that they can draw on according to their own teaching situations.

We requested the authors write about three key areas which we believe could help teachers with their own professional development on a particular topic, and also allow them to see possible applications they could adopt or adjust for their own use:

a) the nature of the domain/construct/skill; a brief overview of the topic of the chapter and its key dimensions

b) an overview of learning for this domain; the issues covered depended on the topic, but could include:

  • factors that influence the development of proficiency in the domain
  • how development is characterized
  • differences between novices and experts
  • links to proficiency frameworks


c) implications for teaching and assessment.

We saw the last section as particularly important. In each of the chapters the authors make very useful practical suggestions that come out of the key learning issues they highlight in the previous sections. In this sense, we are aiming to support teachers to strengthen the links in their teaching between theory and practice, as they interpret them in their own context.

3. The book contains nine sections, which reflect different dimensions of the diverse scope of learning English as a second/additional language. Can you pick out one dimension and say why it was important to include in the book?

The book contains 36 chapters, so it was challenging to organise it into different sections that would help readers make sense of this very complex topic.

I’ve already mentioned that we include chapters on different groups of learners, the skills and systems of language learning, and types of programs. Another important dimension is the increasingly diverse contexts where learning takes place. Much language learning these days happens well beyond the confines of the classroom. Learners also learn through social interaction and social media in their immediate communities, but also internationally and virtually.

We felt it was important not just to focus on the classroom, but also to provide chapters that illustrate the broader dynamic contexts and possibilities for language learning. In the book, readers will also find sections on the more ‘traditional’ concerns of second language acquisition (e.g. motivation, learning strategies), different approaches (e.g. tasks, textbooks, translation) and multi-media, technology and language learning.

4. Four themes which run throughout the book are: learning and learners; learning and language; learning and language development; learning and the learning context. Can you pick a theme and say why it’s important for ELT teachers and their learners?

The first theme seems particularly important for this volume. A major purpose in editing the book was to put learners at the core of language teaching, to explore who these learners are, and to identify what key issues are important for teachers to consider when teaching them.

We felt that in discussions of language learning/acquisition, the monolingual ‘native speaker’ had traditionally been foregrounded as the target for learning and we wanted to get away from that view. What comes out clearly in the chapters is that learners are better seen as emergent bilinguals or multilinguals, whose learning involves developing translanguage competence. The authors also highlight the importance of viewing learners as active agents, who are developing new identities as they take on learning another language, and not passive recipients.

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