The Role of Reading in First and Second Language Acquisition

Seminar Paper, 2012

34 Pages, Grade: Sehr Gut


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Nature of Language and Literacy

3. First Language Acquisition.
3.1 Characteristics of First Language Acquisition
3.2 Models of L1 Development Stages
3.3 Ideal Texts and Reading Tasks for L1 learners

4. Second Language Acquisition.
4.1 Characteristics of Second Language Acquisition
4.2 Reading Models for L2
4.3 Ideal Texts and Reading Tasks for L2 learners

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“A person’s future opportunities for success and prosperity will be even more entwined with skilled reading abilities. It is therefore an important societal responsibility to offer every person the opportunity to become a skilled reader, and in many cases, this means becoming a skilled L2 reader.” (Grabe 2009: 6)

As Grabe reveals with his statement, reading has become an indispensable language skill not only in an individual’s mother tongue, but preferably also in its acquired foreign language, without which it is difficult, if not impossible to make career nowadays. Wherever we go outside our homes, we will see and read print, even so in more deprived areas, such as on hiking trails, where instead of advertising wallpapers we are likely to encounter signposts that guide us. Since information transfer is reserved to both oral and written communication in modern society, reading remains the only option to decode writing.

However, developing reading skills is more than just improving one’s word recognition and decoding abilities. Grabe points out that “most words build phonological activation prior to lexical access” (2009: 24) in the word recognition process that combines the interactive areas of orthography, phonology and meaning. This characteristic of reading allows for unconscious pronunciation drilling and training even though it can be assumed that readers will occasionally consciously check the pronunciation of certain unfamiliar words. Whether or not supported by conscious learning, reading seemingly prepares learners for oral communication by maintaining constant phonological activation.

Moreover, recognized words in the reading process are supposed to transmit some activation energy to their “semantic neighbours in the lexical network when they are accessed.” (Grabe 2009: 25/26) Known as the notion of spreading activation (Grabe 2009: 25), this phenomenon suggests that reading establishes a cognitive network of connotations that learners acquire to broaden their lexis for idiomatic application in communicative contexts.

As one may quickly realize, reading involves learning about both language and content, which is why it simply must be part of a regular English lesson. Therefore, the research question addressed in this paper is what English language teachers should keep in mind when developing reading tasks for both First (L1) and Second Language Learners (L2). To answer this question more safely, the following sections will first deal with some general characteristics of Language and Literacy and (of) First and Second Language Acquisition before connecting with suggested L1/L2 reading tasks built on the theory outlined.

2. The Nature of Language and Literacy

Although English language learners may not perceive any (big) difference between language and literacy, there is one decisive distinguishing factor explaining why reading and writing are particularly difficult domains to acquire in a language. As Lems (2010: 3) quotes Pinker (2007), “Language is an instinct, but reading is not.”

History has shown that reading and writing are not universal and inevitable parts of language development since some cultures, such as the Mississippian peoples in Cahokia, have never established a writing system to communicate. (cf. Lems 2010: 4) Lems therefore concludes that “because reading and writing are not inevitable processes even in a first language, it stands to reason that considerable energy and effort are needed to learn to do them in a new language.” (2010: 4)

However, Halliday’s (1993) language based model of learning (cf. Lems 2010: 2) combines three core language functions that relate undoubtedly to literacy as a vital part of effective language development.

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This model argues that language learners inevitably learn about language and content when they start learning a language. The same rule applies to the remaining areas Learning about Language and Learning Content through Language. Therefore, a person learning content knowledge is automatically exposed to language learning, which again, involves linguistic characteristics. Lastly, learning about language characteristics will increase language knowledge per se and the knowledge acquired equals content.

Since much of the information that we are interested in is written, reading a book or an article will certainly increase our language knowledge by acquiring new vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. At the same time, we will learn about language by familiarizing with certain structural characteristics of individual text types and most obviously, about the contents that we are eager to explore.

Reading, as one will realize, is (maybe) not (yet) an inevitable, but certainly an urgently beneficial part of effective language development in our modern society. As Halliday comments on his model, “we should recognize not only a developmental continuity right through from birth to adult life, with language in home, neighborhood, primary school, secondary school, and place of work, but also a structural continuity running through all components and processes of learning.” (Lems 2010: 3) Based on this view of reading, the aim of this seminar paper is to explore reading as a vital component of language development, facilitating language acquisition considerably.

3. First Language Acquisition

3.1 Characteristics of First Language Acquisition

Any person reflecting on major characteristic features of First and Second Language Acquisition will intuitively agree that native speakers of English (L1) will perform better in all four domains of language (listening, reading, speaking and writing) than Second language learners (L2). As Meisel (2011: 8) quotes Corder, “children acquiring their L1, as opposed to L2 learners, are inevitably successful” and “L1 development is part of the child’s maturational process”.

The new-born child’s maturational growth has indeed been a central research area of First Language Acquisition for a very long time and is even discussed today as a vital constituent of language developmental constraints. Elaborating on the concept of the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH), Meisel (2011: 203) claims that “neural maturation is hypothesized to open and close windows of opportunities during which certain learning tasks – in our case grammatical development – can be achieved with relative ease and maximal success.” However, as Meisel carefully develops, this does not mean that foreign language acquisition is an impossible undertaking. Rather, the CPH explains why “older learners with a mature and more powerful cognitive system do worse, in some respects at least, than toddlers learning one or more first language(s) […]”. (2011: 203)

Developed by Penfield and Roberts in 1959, the Critical Period Hypothesis has been examined by various researchers to agree on more or less reliable optimal periods during which language developmental changes take place. Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson, for instance, suppose that children acquiring a language till the age of 6 or 7 will attain native-like levels in their L1 as long as they receive enough language input and as long as the learning circumstances remain normal. (cf. Meisel 2011: 205) Accordingly, Meisel (2011: 206) believes that children’s language acquisition process and grammatical knowledge will resemble adult L2 acquisition if the age of onset starts roughly after the age of 6/7 years. Clearly, the emphasis lies on grammatical knowledge to which Meisel also refers as “certain domains of grammar” since “lexical knowledge is predicted not to be concerned at all.” (2011: 204)

Researchers such as Eubank and Gregg (1999) suggest that individual domains of grammar, in particular syntax, phonology and morphology as well as their subcomponents have individual developmental patterns related to varying sensitive phases. (cf. Meisel 2011: 204/205) However, only few researchers dare give specifications on optimal periods during which certain language areas develop. Therefore, Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson’s research may be highly valued, since they have continued to estimate that “maturational effects [relating to phonological development] can be detected […] probably as early as 12 months” (Meisel 2011: 206). More general speculations were made by Krashen believing that “crucial changes happen around age 5” as well as by McLaughlin who set the limit between L1 and L2 Acquisition at age 3 based on empirical evidence. (2011: 206)

Even safer evidence verifying considerable differences between L1 and L2 Acquisition has been generated by fMRI studies, allowing us to visualize spatial deviations between the activated brain areas of L1 and L2 speakers. In one of these fMRI studies focusing on morphosyntactic processing, Kim, Relkin, Lee and Hirsch (1997) examined 12 children of which 6 were acquiring two languages “from early infancy” and another 6 acquiring two languages successively, thus qualifying as actual bilinguals. The fMRI results showed that in early bilinguals, the two languages were processed in mostly overlapping parts in Broca’s area whereas the brains of older children processed both languages in different areas. (cf. Meisel 2011: 208) Since Broca’s area is primarily involved with speech production, McLaughlin’s suggested early age limit between L1 and L2 Acquisition seems indeed well supported and reasonable.

Another fMRI study conducted by Dehaene, Dupoux, Mehler, Cohen, Paulescu, Perani, van de Moortele, Lehéricy and Le Bihan (1997) revealed that L2 Acquisition is processed in broader and more diffuse networks than L1. This suggests that unlike L1 which has been observed to be processed in the left hemisphere, known to be related to language processing, late L2 Acquisition does not obligatorily develop in what Meisel calls “reproducible biological substrate” (2011: 208). While such a result confirms that late L2 Acquisition is considerably more difficult than early native-like L1 Acquisition, the study conducted by Kim, Relkin, Lee and Hirsch also supports the idea that syntactic properties of a language relate to “maturational changes” (Meisel 2011: 208) Therefore, it should be fair to claim that “true bilingualism is only found in children who acquire two L1s simultaneously at or around the age of 1 (De Houwer, 2005).” (Goldenberg 2011: 153)

Surely, contemporary science is not (yet) capable of exploring all the little details about language acquisition, but technology is a lot more advanced than scientific knowledge roughly a hundred years ago, when research on L1 Acquisition first began. Since 1876, researchers have been investigating L1 Acquisition in children, generally with the desperate effort to establish norms of child behaviour and language acquisition characteristics. Almost fifty years after the first parental diaries, which contained daily notes either on a child’s language development or on its general maturation compiled by the “linguist or psychologist parent” (Ingram 1989: 7), behaviourists started rejecting these diaries for a number of reasons. It was found that observations only focused on single children who were particularly “precocious or markedly retarded in their language development”, that many parental reports were unreliable, and that “the records were made under varying conditions.” (Ingram 1989: 12)

Hence, the following period of large sample studies (1926-1957) (cf. Ingram 1989: 7) was mainly marked by the behaviourist view that behavioural changes of the child are considerably influenced by environmental circumstances and stimulus. Explanations of diarists focusing on the active spontaneous behaviour of the developing child were considered highly unmeasurable and naïve. To obtain scientifically more valid results, behaviourists aimed at defining normal behaviour by conducting a series of cross-sectional studies (cf. Ingram 1989: 13). This type of study differs from the diarists’ longitudinal studies in that it is concerned with the observation of different children at distinct ages and not, as is the case with longitudinal studies, with a careful surveillance of “single children changing over time” (Ingram 1989: 13). Moreover, these large sample studies integrated quantified results based on “systematic observation of behaviour” and assessed vocabulary growth, sentence length, and correctness of articulation. (1989: 13) One of the very interesting developed measuring tools from this time is Nice’s (1925) mean (or average) sentence length, which was determined by counting the words of each uttered sentence and calculating the average number of words in each sentence. (cf. Ingram 1989: 14) Ingram believes that the mean sentence length was used in all studies of this period.

However, even large sample studies were eventually considered unreliable since language was thought to be more than just vocabulary growth, sentence length and correctness of articulation. Chomsky’s publication Syntactic structures (1957) revealed that grammar must be a set of rules determining sentence formation and put a central focus on syntax. Moreover, Ingram (1989: 16) believes that linguists could not benefit from “grouped data”, since, for instance, analysing which adverbs are acquired at what time would not explain how rules concerning auxiliary verbs (e.g. Subject-Auxiliary Inversion) are acquired. Finally, most researchers simply jot down the child’s utterances without using reliable recording technology, such as tape-recorders. The trustworthiness of transcribed material is therefore put at stake.

Therefore, researchers in the last period of longitudinal studies addressed some of these problems by examining language development in single children, resembling the method of early diarists. However, the children selected for these studies were generally not the offspring of researchers but specifically chosen according to pre-conceptualized aspects, such as the time of first “multiword utterances” or the nature of being talkative (Ingram 1989: 21). Moreover, children were not continuously observed but visited on certain predetermined days to record language developmental changes. As opposed to early diarists, researchers focused at least on three children in order to more easily decide whether or not observed behaviour is typical of a child. Although three children’s behaviour could not possibly reliably set behavioural norms for all children, researchers argued that they were at least able to make a decision since they had a majority. Surely, the idea was to get rid of large sample studies to account for the acquisition of grammar rules, and since then, the child’s voice has been recorded to maintain solid empirical evidence, as is the case with fMRI studies, which, as has been shown, constitute a revolutionary domain of contemporary L1 Acquisition research.

3.2 Models of L1 Development Stages

Various different models of L1 Acquisition have been developed since 1876 to specify developmental stages of First Language Acquisition in children. Reviewing some of these models allows for the language teacher to gain safer insights into a native speaker’s language competence in order to conceptualize more suitable texts and reading tasks for the L1 learner. As will be demonstrated later in section 4, L2 Acquisition is influenced by different aspects, and reading instructions should be developed individually. To easily keep track of the child’s main developmental language changes, I shall only outline Stern’s (1924) and Nice’s (1925) models in a short contrastive analysis.

In 1924, Stern, who is “generally considered to be the first real classic in child language” (Ingram 1989: 38), established 5 elaborate stages of L1 Acquisition. As can be seen in Table 3.1 below, Stern suggests that language acquisition starts after the first year, when the components of the preliminary stage are merged and, as Ingram quotes Stern, “the child, for the first time, utters a sound with full consciousness of its meaning and for the purpose of communication” (1989: 38).


Excerpt out of 34 pages


The Role of Reading in First and Second Language Acquisition
University of Graz  (Institut für Anglistik)
Linguistics Seminar (Beyond Interpretation: Cognitive and Psycholinguistic Aspects of Reading Research)
Sehr Gut
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1856 KB
role, reading, first, second, language, acquisition
Quote paper
Viktor Kocsis (Author), 2012, The Role of Reading in First and Second Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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