Using Categories to Learn the Rules of a Second Language

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about one way to break second language teaching into categories in order to help students focus on and internalize the rules of the language they are learning.

Second Language Acquisition

Quite a bit of research has been done in the field of second language acquisition. What is often focused on in particular is how students acquire the rules of a second language, as well as the best way, as a teacher, to help them internalize these rules. One particularly famous theory of second language acquisition was created by Stephen Krashen, a linguist at the University of Southern California.

Arguably, the best-known aspect of Krashen's theory is the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis. Here, Krashen distinguishes acquisition, which is concerned with natural communication and subconscious processes, from learning, which is focused on active teaching and conscious focus on the rules of a language. This distinction leads to the two major categories in second language teaching (SLT): explicit versus implicit instruction.

Explicit Instruction

Explicit instruction is the same as what Krashen called 'learning.' It is formal and asks the students to consciously focus on learning the rules of a language. This is the type of instruction most students and teachers are familiar with, and it can be broken down into several subcategories: reading/writing, pronunciation, grammar, and speaking/listening.

In explicit instruction, different lessons will focus on different categories. The rules learned in each category will continue across categories as learning progresses. For example, pronunciation rules will be used constantly in speaking and listening and again in reading and writing. This interaction of categories helps the learner internalize the language rules without becoming overwhelmed by focusing explicitly on too many categories at once.

Explicit learning is a major category in SLT
Explicit teaching


While technically the order of the categories does not matter, pronunciation is often an initial category for SLT. It involves aspects like the alphabet and the sound or sounds each letter makes. As a teacher, you can also focus on how different groups of consonants or vowels interact to form new sounds. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an excellent tool in this category because each symbol in it corresponds to exactly one sound, and the symbols are the same no matter what language the student is studying. Phonetic spelling is also a good alternative if your students are unfamiliar with IPA.


Within this category, it is helpful to teach reading before writing. Reading is input-based, while writing is production-based, and input before production can make it easier on the student. The focus in this category is on spelling and building vocabulary and working up to paragraphs, papers, books, etc. In more phonetic languages, such as Spanish, it can be closely linked to pronunciation, and in any language, it is best taught in conjunction with the category of grammar. Without the interaction of grammar as a category, reading and writing will mostly be single words or short phrases and not helpful for long-term fluency goals.


This tends to be the most difficult category for second language learners, since it requires faster processing of language rules. Just as with reading and writing, input (listening) is most useful when taught before production (speaking). Pronunciation is, of course, closely tied to this category, and the interaction of the two categories is what really helps students internalize pronunciation rules. This is true for grammar, as well.


The other overarching category of SLT is implicit learning. The focus in implicit teaching is on communication strategies, rather than explicit focus on rules. This category aligns most closely with what Krashen terms 'acquisition.' When students practice implicit learning, they are concentrating on communicating or reading something specific and using their second language to do so.

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