How People Learn a Second Language

(Excerpted from my dissertation.)

Learning a second language is an arduous task. Most scholars would agree that it requires a lot of practice (Krashen, 1982; Nation, 2014), language activities that are embedded in realistic tasks (i.e., communicative approach) (Hymes, 1972; McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, & Heald, 2002), plasticity of the brain (Pinker & Bloom, 1990; Ward, 2010), and high levels of motivation (Crystal, 2010; Gardner, 1985). Here are the five stages of second language (L2) learning: preproduction, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). Progress through these stages depends on level of formal education, family background, time spent in an English-speaking country, and many other variables.

For young children, oral language and literacy development should include support in their native language, sufficient time and support, developmentally and culturally appropriate material, a balanced and meaningful literacy program, and reliable, ongoing, and valid assessments (TESOL, 2010a). For adults, more specialized vocabulary and education on the sociocultural dimensions for the workplace or academic setting are required (TESOL, 2010b). Otherwise, adult L2 instruction is like that of young children, as noted in the vision and action agenda of the National Literacy Summit (2000). For example, they propose that adult learners also have access to native language or bilingual texts and instruction that is based on meaningful contexts.

There’s some disagreement as to the developmental stages of SLA, but most agree that the initial stage includes a silent period in which you understand some of the L2 but may not be able to produce it (Granger, 2004). Scholars disagree as to whether there is a critical period (cut-off time) for learning a second language with native-like fluency (Crystal, 2010). For instance, cognitive neuroscientists prefer the term sensitive period to refer to the limited window of time to learn due to evidence supporting the possibility of extended learning (Ward, 2010).

I agree with Pinker and Bloom’s (1990) idea that the critical period varies with maturation and plasticity of the brain due to natural selection. Hurford (1991), in his evolutionary model, referred to language learning past the critical age as the natural selection pressures activating the trait.  These pressures affect adults who come from around the world with the hope of learning English in order to attend an American university. One way to affect the plasticity of the brain is to play video games. Current research on the brain and its behavior indicate that playing highly arousing, reward-based video games activates brain plasticity (Kilgard & Merzenich, 1998).

Numerous factors affect learning ESL. For one, learning English takes a long time. For beginners, basic interpersonal communication skills can take two years to learn, while cognitive academic language proficiency can take five to seven years (Cummins, 2008). Influential factors include, but are not limited to, native language (L1) writing system, age exposed to English, cognitive ability, and exposure to other languages (National Literacy Summit, 2000). Another important factor is gender (i.e., female, male, other), which is influenced by the gender of the teacher, strategy use (Kiram, Sulaiman, Swanto, & Din, 2014), and conventional norms (Oxford & Nyikos, 1989). There’s no conclusive evidence that one gender is better at learning a L2. Oxford and Nyikos (1989) posit that it has more to do with strategy preferences and conventional norms.


Crystal, D. (Ed.). (2010). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of distinction. In B. Street & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 2: Literacy (2nd ed., pp. 71-83). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media LLC.

Gardner, R. C. (1985). Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitudes and motivation.  London, England: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Granger, C. A. (2004). Silence in second language learning: A psychoanalytical reading. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.

Hurford, J. R. (1991). The evolution of critical period for language acquisition. Cognition, 40, 159–201. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(91)90024-X

Hymes, D. (1972). Models on the interaction of language and social life. In J. J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.) Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (pp. 35-71). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Kilgard, M. P., & Merzenich, M. M. (1998). Cortical map reorganization enabled by nucleus basalis activity. Science, 279, 1714-1718.

Kiram, J. J., Sulaiman, J., Swanto, S., & Din, W. A. (2014). The relationship between English language learning strategies and gender among pre-university students: An overview of UMS. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Mathematical Sciences, Vol. 1602 (pp. 502-507). Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: AIP Publishing LLC. doi:10.1063/1.4882532

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practices in second language acquisition.  Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. London, England: Prentice Hall Europe.

McFarlane, A., Sparrowhawk, A., & Heald, Y. (2002). Report on the educational use of games. Cambridge, England: TEEM.

Nation, P. (2014). What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.  Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

National Literacy Summit. (2000). Adult ESL language and literacy instruction: A vision and action agenda for the 21st century. Office of Vocational and Adult Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Oxford, R., & Nyikos, M. (1989). Variables affecting choice of language learning strategies by university students. The Modern Language Journal, 73(3), 291-300. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1989.tb06367.x

Pinker, S., & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavior and Brain Sciences, 13, 707–784. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00081061

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2010a). Position paper on language and literacy development for young English language learners. Washington, DC: TESOL International Association. Retrieved from

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2010b). Position statement on adult English as a second or additional language program. Washington, DC: TESOL International Association. Retrieved from

Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. New York, NY: Psychological Press.

What kind of vocabulary can you learn from role-playing video games?

Brightly colored winged-ferry is learning about a quest from a farmer in his field.
Example of gameplay in EverQuestII

In my current gaming research study with EverQuestII® (EQII), I was pleasantly surprised to see a dominance of neutral words and only a slight majority of negative words over positive ones.  This is based on the participants’ text-based, chat logs that I analyzed with the vocabulary concordancer called Range.  Chat logs include language from the non-playing characters (NPCs), playing characters (gamers), and game alerts.  Range parses the most frequently used words from a text file.  Then we categorized the top 109 most frequently occurring words according to their positive, negative, and neutral attributes.

Positive Words:  achievement, benefits, bonuses, boost, defeating, defense, eligible, encounter, focus, gain, health, increases, loot, points, power, prestigious, promotion, purchase, relieve, and reviving

Negative Words: assassin, combat, corpses, critical, crush, damage, debt, destroyer, destruction, disbanded, disruption, drained, fails, fanatic, fear, infected, inflict, interrupted, intimidation, overrun, purulent, slashing, slay, strike, suffering, threat, and loot* (actually a positive word in game context)

Neutral Words: absorbs, agility, already, attributes, banner, beetle, claim, collect, commoner, consciousness, consider, convert, copper, current, dedicated, discourse, discovered, dwarf, engage, errands, forum, griffon, hail, icon, idle, levels, limb, magic, melee, member, mentoring, northwest, outpost, parries, piercing, reset, reverse, reward, rifts, riposte, shield, silver, spirit, stamina, statesmen, strength, target, thirst, throne, tower, trade, trigger, unique, unknown, untamed, vocals, weight, zone, and purchase

EQII is a text-heavy, massive, multiplayer, online, role-playing game (MMORPG).  It’s a fantasy game with various virtual worlds, numerous characters to play, and thousands of quests, so the language encountered won’t be exactly the same for everyone.  Nevertheless, I noticed some of the same language being encountered at the early levels of play.  For my research study, I’m using some of these common words parsed from English language learning (ELL) participants’ chat logs for their pretest-posttest of new words learned from gameplay.  I want to know if MMORPGs combined with ELL strategies are a good extracurricular activity.

Goals of Research Study on MMORPGs + SLA Strategies

This summer, I started my research study for my dissertation on massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) combined with second language acquisition (SLA) optimizing activities.  I want to find out if free, commercial video games, MMORPGs in particular, are useful in helping English language learners (ELLs) acquire English skills.  Could MMORPGs be used to supplement language programs or personal learning agendas?  I’ll be using EverQuest II emphasizing language interactions and social identity (use of chat log, joining guilds, and character development), as an after school add-on in a mixed-methods-collective-case-study with nonequivalent comparison group design.

In my literature review and my previous case study on gaming and language learning,  ELLs self-reported that they learn English from playing video games.   Also, researchers on this topic are reporting positive gains for ELLs in vocabulary and language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). My dissertation study focuses on these same skills, as well as student attitude toward gaming as a language learning tool and impact of prior gaming experience.

The goal of my study is to foster ELLs’ communicative competence—no matter their locale or socioeconomic situation.  Free role-play gaming (EQII provides 91 levels of free play) can provide opportunities to access authentic language learning environments for experiential learning.  MMORPGs challenge ELLs linguistically and provide accessible themes and embedded support systems.  Literature on gaming indicates gamers practice information literacy skills (seeking & disseminating information), collaboration, problem-solving, and decision-making through meaningful and relevant tasks.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress and findings on this blog.

The Gingerbread Man Doesn’t Escape Common Core

Gingerbread Man with bow tie near stack of other cookies says, "Catch me if you can, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"
Students illustrate text.

In preparation for the Cyber Monday sale, I wanted to share some of my holiday-related educational products available for sale on TeachersPayTeachers.

This is an 18-page document with text from The Gingerbread Man story retold by Sandra Rogers in which students are provided space to illustrate the story to match the meaning described in the text. Twelve vocabulary words are boldface typed within the story with definitions provided on a glossary page. A vocabulary pretest is included, as well.

The end purpose is to have students read it to their parents or other students in the school. This was a popular activity I used in my first grade class during English language arts. Students were eager to learn the new words such as plump, almonds, and hay, so that they could accurately illustrate their self-made booklet. This would make an excellent literacy center independent project that they could work on for days.

Common Core State Standards: This activity correlates to the following CCSS on Speaking and Listening: Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:
Kindergarten: #5. Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions as desired to provide additional detail.
Grade 1: #5. Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
Grade 2: #5. Create audio recordings of stories or poems; add drawings or other visual displays to stories or recounts of experiences when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (Note: The text and drawings can serve as the storyboard for recordings.)

Directions:  You can use this material in two different ways in the English language arts or English as a second language class activities. For example, you can distribute the pages among your class and have the students illustrate the part of the story on their page. Then the teacher can compile them into a book for the class library for the students to read. On the other hand, you can use this activity as an individual assignment and have the students illustrate their very own booklet.

Thank you for shopping Teacherrogers store!  The Cyber Smile Sitewide Sale (#TPTCyberSmile) is Nov 30th & Dec 1st.

Sandra Rogers,
Instructional Designer

Check out my other K-3 illustration activity for the holiday: Santa Meets the Common Core.

Videogames for Extracurricular Second Language Acquisition Activities

Photo by Emma Kim

Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide English language learners (ELLs) with various gameplay situations and narratives to learn language functions in interactive, fun, and effective ways. Commercial MMORGs like World of Warcraft (WOW) provide numerous opportunities to practice information literacy activities such as interpreting, seeking, synthesizing, and disseminating information (Martin & Steinkuehler, 2010).  According to Krashen’s (1982) acquisition versus learning hypothesis, these would be great conduits for informal second language acquisition (SLA).  When a player enters WOW to complete a quest, generally they interact with other players and non-player characters (NPCs) to find and share information. These are examples of information literacy activities, which are linguistically described as heuristic (infer), instrumental (seek), and informative (disseminate and synthesize) language functions (Yahya, 2012). ELLs need to practice these and other types of language functions in all sorts of situations to achieve English language fluency.

MMORPGs provide an informal learning environment with a narrative structure to learn language functions via observation and interaction with others.  This resonates with Bandura’s (1978) social learning theory.  Bandura posited learning occurs through observation of others and without formal reinforcement of learning.  Hence, learning is viewed as a cognitive process where one can learn vicariously through others, which can occur with the NPCs and other gamers during the role-play aspect of WOW. Krashen also posited that SLA can occur unconsciously through passive learning activities.  I extrapolate this idea to the passive learning of language functions via gameplay.  Dickey (2007) described the narrative structure of MMORPGs in her typology of quests as follows: bounty, collection, escort, FedEx, goodwill, and messenger.  For example, the bounty quest is an assignment to hunt for certain players or things within the game.  As a subject matter expert in SLA, I could work with script writers to identify the language functions that correlate to each type of quest per character and game level to develop a list of the language functions and their corresponding level of difficulty (beginner, intermediate, advance).  This document would become a curriculum map of language functions for ELLs and could be marketed as an afterschool program to schools and/or to ELLs directly.

MMORPGs make the target language understandable.  MMORPGs provide affordances to make the conversation comprehensible via animation, sound alerts, written rules, NPCs, and other players verbal input and actions. Krashen (1982) posited in his input hypothesis that learners need comprehensible input (i + 1) before moving to a higher level of understanding.  Besides the aforementioned affordances, the story narrative of MMORPGs provide multiple reinforcers to make the input comprehensible. For instance, the narrative structure has a logical sequence of beginning, middle, and end, as well as an appeal to the senses. In a somewhat similar theory, Vygotsky (1978) proposed that all learning takes place at the edge of one’s understanding with the help of others or a support system.  This is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The role-playing aspect of the videogame provides ELLs with an opportunity to go beyond their own ability and access their ZPD with the help of their partners and NPCs within gameplay. Based on these theories, I propose MMORPGs as a way to informally learn a second language during afterschool extracurricular activities.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Oxford, UK: Prentice-Hall.

Dickey, M. (2007).  Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation.  Educational Technology Research & Development, 55(3), 253-273.  doi:10.1007/s11423-006-9004-7

Krashen, S. (1982).  Principles and practices in second language acquisition.  Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

Martin, C., & Steinkuehler, C. (2010).  Collective information literacy in massively multiplayer online games.  E-Learning and Digital Media, 7(4), 355.  doi:10.2304/elea.2010.7.4.355

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yahya, N. (2011). English language oral development and instruction. In H. Zainuddin, N. Yahya, C. A. Morales-Jones, & E. N. Whelan Ariza (Eds.) Fundamentals of teaching English to speakers of other languages in K-12 mainstream classrooms (3rd ed) (pp. 151-171).  Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Santa Meets the Common Core Standards

Image of Santa on sleigh pulled by reindeer

In search of standard-based instruction, teachers have been producing and purchasing products aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Certainly, they’d like to provide high interest topics for children. This is where Santa enters the picture. If you search for Common Core + Santa on (TPT), you’ll find 222 results! The product shown above is currently my best seller on TPT. I used Clement Clarke Moore’s Christmas poem, and the standards on speaking and listening, to create a literacy activity.

In my product, students are provided space to illustrate the story on each page to match the meaning of the text. Twelve vocabulary words are boldface typed within the poem with definitions provided in the glossary. The purpose is to let students take ownership of the poem by illustrating it and then practice reading it to their parents or other students in the school. This was a popular activity I used in my 3rd Grade class during language arts. Students were eager to learn the new words such as sugarplums, kerchief, and sash, so that they could accurately illustrate their self-made booklet.

Here are the correlating CCSS for Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • Kindergartners: #5. Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions as desired to provide additional detail.
  • Grade 1 Students: #5. Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Grade 2 Students: #5. Create audio recordings of stories or poems; add drawings or other visual displays to stories 
    or recounts of experiences when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Grade 3 Students: #5. Create engaging audio recordings of stories or poems that demonstrate fluid reading at an understandable pace; add visual displays when appropriate to emphasize or enhance certain facts or details.

The poetry product featured above can be purchased online in my TPT Teacherrogers’ store: #TPTCyberSmile

You can find PDFs of all the CCSS and their applications to students with disabilities and English Language Learners at this site:

Sandra Rogers,

Instructional Designer

Note: This post was previously published on this 12/19/13.