Vocabulary size research at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

LanguageBlog post written by Paul Nation based on an article in Language Teaching

How many words in English do you know? How many words do your students know? What words should our learners be focusing on? Do native speakers at primary and secondary school need vocabulary-focused instruction? These questions and others like them have been of concern to researchers in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand for well over thirty years. One of the results of this concern has been a range of vocabulary tests which have been made available for general use.

It may seem a straightforward job to make a vocabulary test. However, vocabulary size testing is probably the most badly researched area in the field of applied linguistics. It’s not badly researched because of a lack of research. It’s badly researched because the research has been methodologically faulty, so faulty in fact that the results of much of the research are grossly misleading.

An important first step in measuring vocabulary size is to create a substantial list of words to draw a sample from. Developments in computing and corpus linguistics have now made this much more feasible, and many of the tests reported on in this article draw upon word lists that were carefully created for the purposes of test development.

Most of the article describes the Vocabulary Size Test and its bilingual and computerised versions. Bilingual versions of the test are now available in languages such as Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean.  Bilingual versions are helpful for lower proficiency learners in particular.  An online version of the test has now been taken by thousands of first and second language speakers of English.

How can finding out about your students’ vocabulary size help you and your students?  It can help you diagnose particular learning problems and set curriculum goals.  It can also help you select materials at the right lexical level for your classes and for your students’ independent learning time.  Knowing their vocabulary size can also help your students understand and set their own vocabulary learning goals.

Since the writing of the article, another test aimed at young pre-literate learners has been developed and will soon become available – the Picture Vocabulary Size Test.

Read the full article ‘Vocabulary size research at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand’ here 

Publish or perish: The myth and reality of academic publishing

Post written by Icy Lee based on an article in the latest issue of Language Teaching

While writing for scholarly publications is considered a crucial dimension of academic work, the ‘publish-or-perish’ system in our field has increasingly caused anxiety and induced stress among not only young academics but also more established scholars. The publish-or-perish sentiment has bred cynicism about the purposes of academia and is increasingly criticised because it shifts emphasis away from teaching. Instead of arguing for or against ‘publish or perish’, or the place of research as opposed to teaching, in this talk I focus on academic publishing itself, examine the problems associated with publishing in the publish-or-perish system, revisit what it means to publish in the system, and propose some coping strategies to survive ‘publish or perish’.

Using my own publishing experience as a point of departure, I challenge the assumption that knowledge contribution should be solely or mainly gauged on the basis of the venue of publications. By comparing the perspectives of twelve Asia-based scholars based on data collected from email interviews, I propose that ‘scholarliness’ should be defined by knowledge dissemination and advancement in our field, rather than indexes or journal impact factors.  Although academia is dominated by the publish-or-perish sentiment, and in spite of universities’ requirements about publishing, my own experience and my informants’ views strengthen my belief that we don’t just publish to keep our jobs, but to become contributing members of the academic/research community, to advance knowledge in the field, to gain personal satisfaction, and to make a difference. We don’t publish just for university administrators but for the benefit of the research academic/educational community. While we may be obliged to publish in certain journals, we should be aware of the need to view scholarship broadly and cherish the possibility of publishing work of different types, such as full-length research articles, practically-oriented papers, research in progress, book reviews, issues in forum/responses to previously published articles, book chapters and conference proceedings. We should also believe that quality work can appear in all kinds of journals (SSCI-listed and otherwise), and the most important thing about publishing is that our work can open up new frontiers and bring improvement to teaching and learning.

Instead of ‘publish or perish’, we academics should persist and publish, and publish to accomplish – to create knowledge, or to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. If ‘publish or perish’ could be replaced with a more positive mantra like ‘publish to accomplish’, and if publishing could be rewarded for its own sake and publications evaluated for their own worth, academic publishing would become a much more rewarding, fulfilling and productive experience for all concerned.

Read the full article ‘Publish or perish: The myth and reality of academic publishing‘ here

Mixed-methods research in language teaching and learning: Opportunities, issues and challenges

LTA 47 2Post written by A. Mehdi Riazi and Christopher N. Candlin based on a recent article in Language Teaching

Extended Abstract

Mixing methods from two supposedly incompatible research methodologies, namely, quantitative and qualitative, has received considerable attention over the last couple of decades from researchers in social and human sciences. This interest has resulted in recent years the emergence of the term mixed-methods research (MMR).

Using MMR, researchers are now able to investigate more complex research problems and research questions drawing on both quantitative and qualitative methodologies in a single study and thus enable more comprehensive inferences to be drawn concerning the research issue.

There are now specialised journals and books whose commitment is methodological pluralism and mixed-methods research, publishing a wide range of MMR studies from a variety of academic disciplines. Recognising the value of mixing methods as a departure from adherence to traditionally opposing paradigms has significant implications for theory and practice in applied linguistics in general, and language teaching and learning in particular.  It offers significant opportunities and challenges for both researchers and practitioners.

This state-of-the-art paper focuses directly on MMR in the domain of language teaching and learning by outlining and critically reviewing issues related to this newly developed research methodology. The paper has six sections. The first provides a context for the discussion of MMR through an introductory review of quantitative and qualitative approaches to research. In the second section we discuss the nature and scope of MMR, its underlying principles, and its techniques and procedures. We explain and illustrate the theoretical and practical aspects of MMR so as to provide a bird’s eye view of this integrated methodology for language teaching and learning researchers. In the third section we discuss trends in MMR in language teaching and learning research, reviewing 40 published papers with an MMR orientation in 30 journals related to language teaching and learning, covering one decade (2002–2011). This detailed review of the papers illustrates how researchers in the field have engaged with MMR and how they have conceptualised their studies within this new methodology. The review will be helpful to researchers currently undertaking MMR and to prospective language teaching and learning researchers. Issues and challenges facing MMR and its researchers are discussed in the fourth section, while in the fifth we explore and discuss the significance of replicating MMR studies in language teaching and learning. To do so, we select two example studies reviewed in section three explaining how they could be replicated and extended so as to produce more fully-fledged MMR studies. Finally, we conclude this State of the Art paper by presenting future prospects and directions for further developing mixed-methods research.

Access the entire article without charge here 

Research in foreign language education in Portugal (2006–2011): its transformative potential

Post written by Flávia Vieira, Maria Alfredo Moreira and Helena Peralta based on a research review article recently published in Language Teaching, vol. 47(2).

A lot of research is produced and published at a national level, which limits its visibility and may distort our understanding of the state of the art within any area of knowledge. In this respect, the Language Teaching journal renders an excellent service to the foreign language education (FLE) community through the rubric A Country in Focus, where reviews of national research with no international circulation are published. Our study analyses a selective corpus of empirical and theoretical texts on foreign language pedagogy and teacher education, produced in Portugal between 2006 and 2011.

One of the main issues regarding the quality of FLE research is itstransformative potential as regards pedagogy, teacher education, policies and research itself. For example,to what extent and how does research seek to transform current discourses and practices, thus allowing participants and readers to challenge and reconstruct established regimes? What is the relevance of its outcomes and implications as regards the understanding and enhancement of teaching, teacher education, the policies affecting both and research itself? What shortcomings can be pointed out as a basis for future developments?

Based on this type of concerns, a descriptive and interpretative approach was adopted to inquire into the transformative potential of FLE research in Portugal, with a focus on its scope, purposes, conceptual and methodological frameworks, outcomes (findings and shortcomings), and implications. A total of 133 texts produced by 114 authors were analysed, including MA and Ph.D. dissertations, books, book chapters, journal articles, and papers in conference proceedings.

Four major research themes were identified which are primarily related to current language policies and theoretical developments in language didactics – intercomprehension and plurilingualism, teacher and learner autonomy, Portuguese as a non-native language, and technology-based learning and teaching. The transformative potential of research carried out within these themes is enhanced by five major characteristics: the intention to question and reshape dominant practices on the basis of democratic values; an empowering view of language, pedagogy and teacher education; a close relation between pedagogical research and teacher education; participatory research methodologies; and the identification of constraints to, and conditions for, change. However, there seems to be a need to develop strategies that remain somewhat marginal and yet may enhance the transformative potential of FLE research, namely: expanding university-school partnerships, professional learning communities and school-based inquiry; strengthening the political dimension of research outcomes; enlarging the scope and impact of  naturalistic inquiry; and fostering a scholarship of teacher education.

Overall, the review points out encouraging signs as regards the transformative potential of FLE research in Portugal, as well as directions for enhancing that potential. Despite the limitations of the study in terms of comprehensiveness, we hope that it can help researchers be more attentive to whether and how their work is socially relevant, and develop more productive strategies to accomplish that goal.

Access the entire article without charge until 30th June 2014.

Dictionary use by English language learners

Post written by Hilary Nesi based on a recent article in Language Teaching

Almost everyone uses dictionaries, and in order for them to function most effectively we need to learn how best to consult them, and dictionary-makers need to learn about our consultation needs.

These two topics are the foci of research into dictionary use, but are complicated by the fact that there are lots of different types of dictionary user, consulting dictionaries in many different contexts, for different purposes, and with differing levels of knowledge and expertise. Moreover although the research area is still relatively young (very few empirical studies were conducted before the 1980s) it spans a period of great technological change, and has experimented with a range of methodologies.  For these reasons studies purporting to address similar research questions have sometimes arrived at rather different conclusions.

The Research Timeline ‘Dictionary use by English language learners’ is my attempt to trace the developments in the study of dictionary use that are of greatest relevance to ELT,  and to identify broad areas of agreement amongst the research findings. Many of the earliest studies were questionnaire-based, and sought information directly from users regarding the dictionaries they owned, their preferences and their consultation strategies. The reliability of some of the survey data has been called into question, however, because although questionnaire respondents usually find it easy to answer factual questions about dictionary ownership, it is hard for them to recall the precise details of their previous dictionary consultations, and tempting for learners to report consultation strategies that their teachers might approve of, rather than the more messy reality of dictionary use.  Thus questionnaire-based studies tend to have been replaced by studies that examine dictionary use during some kind of language activity, using as data test scores, task outcomes, the written or oral protocols of participants and/or, in the most recent studies, log files.

In terms of user preferences and task performance, comparisons have been made between monolingual, bilingual and bilingualised dictionaries, between different monolingual dictionaries, and, as the technology has progressed, between book dictionaries and dictionaries in electronic form.

The rapid rise of the online dictionary has made dictionary ‘ownership’ a thing of the past for many users, and recent dictionary user research has tended to be less concerned with the dictionary as a commercial product, and more with the processes of dictionary consultation. A recurring theme in the research findings has been the problem of mis-selection and misinterpretation of dictionary information, and one strand of research has examined the extent to which additional annotation to the  dictionary entry (in the form of ‘menus’ and ‘signposts’) can help learners select the most appropriate subentries for the tasks they have in hand. Another very recent experimental approach has appropriated eye-tracking technology to investigate how users visually navigate dictionary entry information. Experimental designs are becoming more rigorous, and there are a growing number of replication studies seeking to resolve apparent differences in research results, and explore their causes more deeply.

Ideally, successful dictionary consultation should barely interrupt whatever language activity we are engaged in. Research into dictionary use aims to help lexicographers, learners and teachers achieve this ideal.

Read the entire article ‘Dictionary use by English language learners’ without charge until 30th June 2014.


Managing innovation in English language education

Post written by Alan Waters based on a recent article in Language Teaching

In recent decades, language teaching has experienced an apparently unending stream of major innovations, such as (to name but a very few), the birth of the communicative approach in the 1980s, the promulgation of the ‘learner-centred approach’ in the 1990s, and, in the current age, the promotion of ‘task- based learning’, ‘e-learning’, ‘English as an international language’, and so on. The tide shows no signs of abating: it is as if something of a ‘pro-innovation bias’ has taken hold, i.e., a widespread consensus that new ideas should and can be adopted as widely as possible, that the changes they entail are inevitably beneficial, and that putting them into practice is a relatively straightforward matter.

However, a small but steadily growing body of research literature has shown that many language teaching innovations have frequently fallen short of the mark, both in terms of impact and the desirability of their consequences  The same body of work has also shown that a major cause of these problems has been 
a widespread failure to understand and utilize the lessons of innovation theory.

My paper – ‘Managing innovation in English language education: A research agenda’ – therefore sets out to show how this body of research might be profitably built upon.  It does so by first of all focusing in turn on each of the main stages in the innovation process – initiation, implementation, and institutionalization (sustainability) – and explaining the nature of areas of innovation theory of relevance to each and how such ideas have already been used in research.  I then go on to outline what a typical practical research project involving the further application of each of these concepts might constitute.  Next, I look at a number of further areas of innovation theory which have so far not been applied to ELT-based innovation research.  I once again describe the ideas and then also outline how they might be used in a series of straightforward research studies.

Finally, I also identify a number of areas of ELT innovation activity where research has been under-represented or not undertaken at all, such as those involving certain geographical locations, private-sector projects, ‘successful’ innovations, and so on.  Once again, discussion of each of the areas is accompanied by suggestions for how (further) research might be conducted into them.

It is hoped that, through a greater amount of research activity of these kinds, the knowledge-base needed for a sounder and more successful approach to innovation in language teaching will be strengthened and expanded.

Read the entire paper without charge here until 30th June 2014.

Is the Second Language Acquisition discipline disintegrating?

Post written by Jan H. Hulstijn, based on an article in Language Teaching

The second language acquisition (SLA) field is characterized by a wide variety of issues and theoretical perspectives. Is this a bad thing? Are there signs of disintegration?

In applied linguistics in general, and in particular in the field of SLA, it is not uncommon to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative approaches or between cognitive and socio-cultural approaches. In my view, what is potentially more threatening to the field than a split between quantitative and qualitative subfields is the proportion of nonempirical theories. If an academic discipline is characterized by too many nonempirical ideas and too few empirical ideas, it runs the risk of losing credit in the scientific community at large (and in society).

In this paper, I propose to distinguish, instead, between theories formulated in a way that allows empirical testing and theories that are not, or not yet, empirical in this sense. I am not advocating banishing all nonempirical ideas from the SLA field, but what would really make the field more transparent for both SLA-ers and outsiders is if scholars who propose theories were to indicate to what extent their theory is ready for empirical scrutiny. It does not matter whether the field of SLA is inhabited by many theories. However, it would be a good thing if we viewed the field not only in terms of the ‘issues’, as do most of the textbooks, but also in terms of their empirical or nonempirical status. This would also help us gain a better view of the agenda of our discipline.

For this purpose, I provide a list of theory-classification criteria. Sticking out my neck, I categorize a number of theories as having a more or less falsfiable status. While welcoming theories not yet ready for empirical falsification, I also express my concern about the possibility that the non-empirical theories may outnumber the theories that lend themselves to falsification.

Access the full article without charge until January 31st 2014 here.


Brumfit Award runner-up Anke Lenzing discusses her prize winning work

The development of the grammatical system in early second language acquisition

Post written by Anke Lenzing

A central issue in SLA research concerns the question of what kind of linguistic resources are available to the L2 learner at the very beginning of the L2 acquisition process. My thesis sets out to explore this question. It aims at providing an explanatory account of the initial mental grammatical system and its development in early L2 learners of English in a formal context.

When examining the oral performance data of early L2 learners, it can be observed that initially, their speech production is characterised by single words, formulaic sequences and ungrammatical structures. These structures do not only deviate syntactically from the target language pattern; they are also semantically ill-formed and diverge from the target language as regards the arguments that the learners express; i.e. the utterances contain either too many or too few arguments or entirely different arguments than those the learner intends to express.

To account for these utterances, I propose a theoretically motivated model of the L2 initial mental grammatical system as well as specific hypotheses concerning its development, which are based on Lexical Functional Grammar and Processability Theory. The core claims are that 1) the initial L2 mental grammatical system is constrained semantically, i.e. at the level of argument structure, and syntactically; i.e. at the level of constituent structure and that 2) the L2 lexicon is gradually annotated in the process of L2 acquisition.

To test these hypotheses, I conducted a combined cross-sectional and longitudinal study focussing on the spontaneous oral speech production of 24 German primary school learners of English as an L2. I carried out linguistic profile analyses of the learners’ speech samples by analysing the morphological and syntactic structures in the data by means of distributional analyses. I also conducted distributional analyses of the argument structure of the lexical verbs occurring in the learner data.

The results of the analyses support the hypotheses, as they indicate that 1) the grammatical system of early L2 learners is highly constrained at the level of both constituent and argument structure and that 2) the L2 lexicon is being successively annotated. It can be seen that initially, the learners rely predominantly on formulaic sequences and that in the course of SLA, there is a development away from formulaic utterances towards a more productive use of the target language.

A revised version of my thesis has been published by John Benjamins. For more details about my research and references please visit http://kw.uni-paderborn.de/institute-einrichtungen/institut-fuer-anglistik-und-amerikanistik/personal/lenzing/.

 Visit the Language Teaching homepage to read more about the 2013 Brumfit Award 


2012 Christopher Brumfit Award winner Jim Ranalli discusses his prize winning work

Post written by Jim Ranalli

It’s a great honor to receive the 2012 Christopher Brumfit Award, especially as it commemorates a scholar whose books on communicative methodology were a tremendous source of guidance and inspiration to me when I first trained as an English teacher. I thank the panel of referees, the editor and editorial board of Language Teaching, and Cambridge University Press for this special recognition of my research and the opportunity to share it with a wider audience.

The focus of my thesis was a web-based, instructional resource called VVT (Virtual Vocabulary Trainer), which I developed to teach integrated vocabulary depth of knowledge and dictionary referencing skills to university-level learners of English as a Second Language (ESL). In addition to evaluating the potential of online resources to address long-standing challenges in the field of second language (L2) strategy instruction, my project also targeted research objectives in other related areas. I described these in four separate articles that were aimed at peer-reviewed journals in the fields of computer-assisted language learning (CALL), applied linguistics, and English language teaching.

The first paper discussed the theoretical underpinnings of the VVT course, the procedures I followed in developing it, and the materials themselves, while also suggesting general design principles for L2 strategy instruction based on frameworks derived from information-processing theory. The second paper represented the evaluation component of the project and reported how I investigated the feasibility of online strategy instruction by studying the resource’s effectiveness, both actual and perceived, in a randomized controlled trial involving 64 ESL composition students. In the third paper, the VVT course served as the platform for another study critiquing a structural model of L2 vocabulary learning proposed in a 2008 paper by Wen-Ta Tseng and Norbert Schmitt, while at the same time adding to the literature on the acquisition of L2 vocabulary depth-of-knowledge features. In the final paper, which was based in a self-regulated learning framework, I used discrepant cases from the evaluation study – that is, individual participants whose performances diverged significantly from group norms – to investigate the metacognitive process of task definition, a stage of learning in which students develop internal, and potentially idiosyncratic, representations of tasks.

I believe my findings provide clear evidence of the feasibility of automated, online forms of strategy instruction for complementing teacher-led forms, while at the same time shedding light on the challenges many L2 learners face in self-directed learning of vocabulary depth of knowledge. They also demonstrate the potential of process-oriented models of self-regulated learning for researching and theorizing about L2 acquisition and strategy use. Two of the papers have been published so far and I am currently collecting more data to improve the final two papers for publication. If you’re interested in the references or in finding out more about my research, please visit www.jimranalli.net.

Discover more about the Christopher Brumfit Award and how you can enter for 2013 here.


A Language for all the World

Written by John Edwards

Based on an article in the July 2013 issue of  Language Teaching.

In the popular mind, constructing a language has always been seen as an odd activity, one that seems to fly in the face of ‘natural’ language dynamics.  After all, languages evolve; they do not emerge from some sacred forehead, much less from a mortal brain.  And yet interest in a divine – and therefore immediately fully-formed – language was once important (and, even today, remains significant in some rather curious religious quarters).  Attention to this, and to later and more mundane projects aimed at improving upon natural languages in some way, is a neglected but important aspect of linguistic history – and, indeed, of modern scientific development.

The first stage here involved attempts (highly speculative, of course) to recapture the original lingua humana, as spoken in the Garden of Eden.  Adam, we are told, named all the birds and beasts of the earth in this original language, a variety that – unlike all languages since – encapsulated a perfect correspondence between spoken words and the things they represented.  As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Adam named the animals ‘as they pass’d, and understood their nature.’  Could this first language have been Hebrew – or perhaps Aramaic, or Arabic?   If so, then speakers of those languages (or even of their post-Adamic descendants) might surely claim some higher moral ground than others.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, these early speculations were set aside as essentially pointless.  But the notion of a language more perfect than existing natural varieties still appealed, and, in a second part of our story, we find scholars trying to create entire languages ab ovo, motivated by the desire for a more logical and regular variety that would better reflect and channel scientific classification. It eventually became clear, however, that attempts to make a language that owed nothing to existing varieties were as fruitless as efforts to discover the language of Eden.  So, in a third and still-existing stage, ‘artificial’ languages have been assembled from pre-existing rules and components; the most well-known example is Esperanto. This work has been underpinned by hopes for a more practical medium, but there have also been expectations that a language that was both regular and widely shared would contribute to international harmony and understanding.

 You can read the entire article here without charge until 30th September 2013.