Replication in interaction and working memory research

JCL blog post Sep 15 - memoryBlog post written by Lorena Valmori based on an article in Language Teaching

Several empirical studies have shown that L2 interaction promotes L2 learning. However, recent research has also shown that individual differences, such as working memory capacity, can impact the benefits of feedback.  Working memory capacity is argued to be responsible for storing and processing incoming input and has been measured with a number of elicitation methods such as phonological short-term memory (digit and non-word span), reading span, and operation span. We argue that the time is right to replicate studies that unify the research areas of working memory capacity and L2 learning.

We selected and analyzed two recent studies (Révész 2012 and Goo 2012) that investigated how working memory capacity mediates effectiveness of feedback (recasts and metalinguistic feedback). In Goo’s study, it mediates the effects of recasts, but not of metalinguistic feedback; in Révész, it depends on the type of working memory test. We think these two studies represent recent directions in the field, address the important construct of working memory capacity whose measurements show potential methodological issues, and provide detailed descriptions of all aspects of the studies to facilitate replication.  In the attempt to generalize findings, we emphasize the importance of replication in a number of different areas including grammatical complexity of the target structure, the nature of the working memory tests, modes of delivery, and the possibility to gather information about the thought processes through stimulated recalls.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Replication in interaction and working memory research: Révész (2012) and Goo (2012)’ here

Research into practice: The influence of discourse studies on language descriptions and task design in published ELT materials

LTA 47 2Blog post written by Alex Gilmore based on an article in the latest issue of Language Teaching

 Discourse studies is a vast, multidisciplinary, and rapidly expanding area of research, embracing a range of approaches including discourse analysis, corpus analysis, conversation analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, critical discourse analysis, genre analysis and multimodal discourse analysis. Each approach offers its own unique perspective on discourse, focusing variably on text, context or a range of semiotic modes. Together, they provide foreign language teachers and material designers with new insights into language, and are beginning to have an observable impact on published English Language Teaching (ELT) materials. This paper looks at the ways in which the four approaches with the strongest links to the ELT profession (corpus analysis, conversation analysis, discourse analysis and genre analysis) have found their way into language learning materials, and offers some suggestions on how discourse studies may influence ELT classrooms in the future.

 While each of the approaches to discourse focused on in the article brings its own unique perspective to the field, it is clear that there is also a high degree of interconnectivity and overlap amongst them. This suggests that, rather than limiting ourselves to one particular methodology, it would be much more useful to see them as complementary tools in our ‘discourse toolbox’: a selection of lenses that can be combined eclectically to reveal different layers of meaning in our data. Collaborative work of this type, however, brings with it significant challenges – relinquishing ‘ownership’ of knowledge, substantial time commitments, obstructive institutional structures, trust and process issues amongst participants, the negotiation of a common interdisciplinary language, and uncertain outcomes  – but, as Jan Blommaert in his book ‘Discourse’ (2005: 237) says, this is ‘a richer and more interesting field to dwell in than rigidly defined habitual orthodoxies of scientific exploration’.

 Although discourse studies started out as being predominantly about text linguistics, there has been a noticeable shift in focus away from texts towards the context of production, as well as increased interest in non-textual forms of social semiotics. This trend in itself is encouraging more interdisciplinary dialogue, as researchers begin to better appreciate the fact that the complexity of social interaction, as it is played out in the real world, requires a multi-level analytical approach in order to be truly descriptive.

Read the full article ‘Research into practice: The influence of discourse studies on language descriptions and task design in published ELT materials’


Studying Error Correction in Second Language Writing

LTA 47 2How Models from Past Research Can Inform Future Research

Blog post written by Dana Ferris based on an article in Language Teaching

The title of an important 2008 study by Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford is “Mistakes are a fact of life.” “Mistakes” are also natural part of any learning process, but when it comes to student writing, teachers worry that if language errors—such as problems with verb tense or missing word endings or incomplete sentences (fragments) or incorrect punctuation—are left uncorrected, students will never learn from those mistakes. Teachers also worry that students’ ideas, competence, and work ethic will be harshly judged by later real-world audiences, such as graduate school professors or future employers, if young writers do not learn to self-edit errors and make progress in avoiding them on subsequent pieces of writing.

This tension between normal learning processes and teacher concerns about student development has led to a contentious several decades of research on the topic of “written corrective feedback”—error correction—in teaching writing, especially for students who are not writing in their first (primary) language. Studies of error correction in student writing have crossed several disciplinary boundaries—from foreign language studies to writing/composition studies to applied linguistics/second language studies. This is a topic that continues to be of great practical interest to teachers and researchers.
In my article published in Language Teaching, I discuss two very important studies on this topic, both of which appeared in major journals (Modern Language Journal and College Composition and Communication) in the 1980s. I talk about why these two studies have been important in shaping discussion and research about the topic of written CF in the following decades. I also argue that the two studies should be replicated—repeated under similar conditions—so that their findings can be extended to current student writers and classrooms. In this argument, I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the two studies and make specific suggestions about what replications of these two important pieces of research might look like. Readers interested in this topic will find the detailed summaries of these two “oldies but goodies” valuable, and researchers looking for good models for their own studies will find them in these two landmark pieces of research.

Read the full article ‘Written corrective feedback in L2 writing: Connors & Lunsford (1988); Lunsford & Lunsford (2008); Lalande (1982)’ here

The truth about transitions: What psycholinguistics can teach us about writing

Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer

The Reader's Brain Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.

As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.

Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.

Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:

Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.

Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.

Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.

You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

2014 Christopher Brumfit Award winner talks to Cambridge Extra

Foto H  van ZeelandBlog post written by Hilde van Zeeland, winner of the 2014 Christopher Brumfit Award

Most L2 vocabulary research has focused on learners’ knowledge of written, rather than spoken, words. In my thesis, I identified and addressed two gaps in the field: 1) how many spoken (versus written) words L2 learners know, i.e. their vocabulary knowledge in listening, and 2) how successful learners are at learning new words from spoken input, i.e. their vocabulary knowledge from listening.

The first two studies from my thesis (one published, one under review) focused on vocabulary knowledge in listening. Little is known about how many words learners know when they hear them in their spoken form, and in particular, if knowledge found on written tests (e.g. the VLT, VST, and the Yes/No test) is also available to learners when they listen to continuous speech. I compared learners’ knowledge of isolated written words with their knowledge of spoken words in isolation as well as in sentence contexts. When learners saw/heard words in isolation, they showed slightly better knowledge of written than spoken vocabulary. Interestingly, regarding spoken vocabulary, learners often failed to recognise words in continuous speech that they did demonstrate knowledge of when they heard them in isolation. This indicates that results from tests with isolated word forms (whether written or spoken) might overestimate the knowledge learners actually have at their disposal while listening. For pedagogical purposes, this means we should be careful with selecting listening materials based on results from such vocabulary tests (e.g. by means of lexical coverage calculations).

The third and fourth study (both published) focused on vocabulary knowledge from listening. The third study assessed L1 and L2 listeners’ success in inferencing word meanings from context, and explored the effect of three variables that have been found to affect inferencing success in reading: background knowledge, clue type, and vocabulary knowledge. Results showed that these variables had the same effect in listening. This suggests that, regardless of the input modality, it is advisable to control for these variables when carrying out lexical inferencing tasks, especially where their aim is to learn new vocabulary. The fourth study measured L2 listeners’ incidental vocabulary acquisition. It explored their learning of words’ meaning, form and grammatical function. Although learners acquired some knowledge types quicker than others, they did not build durable knowledge of any of them, even after having heard the target words 15 times. This indicates that spoken input alone is not very effective for vocabulary learning, and that some sort of input enhancement might be appropriate.

Together, these studies emphasise the importance of further examining the construct of spoken vocabulary knowledge, as well as the acquisition of it. However, although the vocabulary-listening domain is growing, it remains an under-researched area. I hope these studies will further encourage researchers to explore spoken vocabulary knowledge – both in and from listening.

Congratulations to Hilde on winning this prestigious award.

You can discover more about the Christopher Brumfit PhD/Ed.D. Thesis Award 2015 here. 

30th November 2015 – Deadline for receipt of summary and abstract and official proof of thesis acceptance

Research into Practice: Cultural and intercultural awareness

LTA classroom - Feb 15Blog post written by Will Baker based on an article in the latest issue of Language Teaching

It is commonly claimed that the main goal of learning and teaching a second language is for communication.  While this would seem both appropriate and beneficial, the goal and associated processes for learning are most accurately described as intercultural communication rather than just communication.   One of the consequences of this lack of interest in the intercultural in L2 teaching (or L3, L4 etc…), is that too often teaching and learning has focused on a fixed code or set of linguistic structures with little consideration of the wider intercultural communicative practices they are part of. This has been addressed in recent decades, in part, by the increasing interest in the cultural dimensions of language teaching and learning and in particular the notion of intercultural communicative competence.   The key to intercultural communicative competence is cultural or intercultural awareness.

In this article I examine the role of cultural awareness (CA) and intercultural awareness (ICA) in classroom theory and practice. CA and ICA can be roughly characterised as an awareness of the role of culture in communication with CA focused on national cultures and ICA on more dynamic and flexible relationships between languages and cultures. I consider the findings from CA and ICA research that have not been well applied those that have been well applied and those that have been over-applied to classrooms. In particular, I argue that CA and ICA are more prevalent in pedagogic theory, and to a lesser extent policy, than they are in practice. While the cultural dimension to language learning is now fairly mainstream, where elements of CA and ICA are applied or translated into the classroom they typically take the form of comparisons between national cultures, often in essentialist forms. There is still little evidence of classroom practice that relates to the fluid ways cultures and languages are related in intercultural communication, especially for English as a lingua franca or other languages used on a global scale.

Such an evaluation will necessarily be subjective, and I draw on my own experiences of teaching masters level courses in the UK to language teachers from around the world, as well as my experiences of and continued interest in English language teaching (ELT) in Thailand. At the same time though, I relate these experiences to what we currently understand through research about the role of cultural and intercultural awareness in L2 use and learning. Given my experiences of ELT, the discussion mainly focuses on English language teaching and English as a lingua franca; however, many of the issues are relevant to teaching other languages.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Research into Practice: Cultural and intercultural awareness’ here

2013 Christopher L. Brumfit Award Prize Runner-up Announced

LTA 47 2We are delighted to announce that the runner-up of this year’s prize is Alastair Henry.

We asked Alastair to provide Cambridge Extra with a summary of his winning work.

As a language teacher and language teacher educator it really is a great honour that my thesis ‘L3 Motivation’ was selected as runner-up for the 2013 Christopher Brumfit Award. In addition to my supervisors at the University of Gothenburg, and of course the panel of referees, the editor and members of the editorial board at Language Teaching, I would like to thank Professor Zoltán Dörnyei who generously agreed to review the thesis, providing guidance, advice and insights that were invaluable in enabling me to improve the work and sharpen some of the theoretical arguments.

When I started my research I hadn’t indented to write a thesis on school students’ motivation to learn additional languages such as French, German or Spanish. However I quickly realized that while there was a growing body of research on motivation to learn English, there was hardly any research on other languages. Nor did motivation researchers seem to differentiate between languages learnt as L2s or L3s. Furthermore, I began working at a time when a paradigm shift was taking place in motivation research, the new model offering opportunities to explore aspects of motivation – such as the impact of the L2 on L3 motivation – that had not previously existed.

The thesis consists of four papers (two published in System, one in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development and and one in the International Journal of Multilingualism). In the first two studies I drew on questionnaire-based data to track secondary school students’ motivation to learn English (the L2) and French, German and Spanish (the L3) across six school grades, analysing the differences in motivational trajectories between the L2 and L3, and in girls’ and boy’s motivation over the period. In the third study I suggested that L2 English was having a negative effect on L3 motivation, testing this hypothesis using data from a cohort of final grade students, while in the fourth study I carried out interviews with students with differing motivational profiles identified using cluster analysis techniques. Analyses of the data in these studies revealed that negative comparisons with L2 English were having a negative effect on L3 motivation, particularly among boys, and that students who were successful in maintaining L3 motivation invoked counteracting resources to offset such effects. Based on these findings, and on proposals previously made by Zoltán Dörnyei, as well as work in the multilingual field by Ulrike Jessner, I offered a number of suggestions for ways in which teachers can help students strengthen their self-concepts as multilingual speakers, and how they can refocus on L3 learning in the face of negative comparisons with English.

Many congratulations Alastair on being runner-up in this coveted international award which perpetuates the name of such a distinguished linguist.

2013 Christopher L. Brumfit Award Prize Winner Announced

LTA 47 2We are delighted to announce that the winner of this year’s prize is Ellen Serafini.

We asked Ellen to provide Cambridge Extra with a summary of her prize winning work.

I am humbled to be recognized by Language Teaching and Cambridge University Press as the recipient of the 2013 Christopher Brumfit award and sincerely thank all those involved for this great honor. In the apt words of my mentor, Dr. Cristina Sanz, my thesis research attempts to look at the forest rather than the trees in its comprehensive approach to understanding the complexities of second language (L2) learning in adults.

My principal motivation was to explain variability in L2 development between adult L2 learners of Spanish by considering the role of learner individual differences (IDs) at varying levels of proficiency and at different points in time. While previous research has tended to look only at the cognitive or the affective side of the learner equation cross-sectionally, rather than longitudinally, I examined both cognitive IDs, like working memory capacity, and psychosocial IDs, like L2 motivation, in order to ascertain their relative and joint explanatory capacity over time. A secondary goal of this research was to contribute to what we know about the development and measurement of knowledge of (implicit) and about (explicit) L2 grammar at increasing proficiency.

I am currently preparing a report of the results of this study in a series of articles, four of which are currently in preparation and under review at peer-reviewed journals. The first addresses the reliable and valid assessment of implicit and explicit linguistic knowledge and considers proficiency as a key variable in our interpretation of such measurement. In the second and third papers, I report on the changing role of cognitive and psychosocial resources as learners gain further input, exposure to, and practice in the target language. These results provide much needed empirical evidence for theoretical claims made by Peter Robinson, Peter Skehan, and others that learning additional languages as an adult involves different abilities at different stages of development. In the final paper, I discuss the relationships found between different learner ID constructs and consider their dynamic influence on L2 development and implications for future research.

I believe these findings offer valuable insight to both theory and pedagogy in the field of second language acquisition. In the future, I aim to extend this study to heritage language populations who are key to understanding the complex phenomena of language learning and language maintenance. If you have any questions or comments about my research, please feel free to contact me at

Many congratulations Ellen on winning this coveted international award which perpetuates the name of such a distinguished linguist.

Plagiarism in second-language writing

LTA-Aug-14Blog post written by Diane Pecorari based on an article from the latest issue of Language Teaching

Everyone has a view on plagiarism, and it’s often a strong one, as seen by the frank and free commentary on cases which attract public attention. For example, after the revelation that a prominent German politician had plagiarised in his doctoral thesis, the theses of other politicians in Germany and elsewhere have been subjected to scrutiny. This has led, in a number of cases, to further accusations of plagiarism, sharp criticism of the politicians involved and to responses ranging from embarrassed apology to resignations. These high-profile cases have received significant attention in the news, in blogs like Shake, Copy and Paste, and in staff-room discussions.

Plagiarism is also the object of academic research within a number of disciplines which have taken rather divergent approaches. Within fields such as ethics, higher education theory and policy, pedagogy and bibliometry, the tendency has been to approach plagiarism as a transgressive phenomenon within a regulatory framework. However, in first- and (especially) second-language writing, attention has been paid to plagiarism as a feature of textual production.

In our state-of-the-art article ‘Plagiarism in second-language writing’ we trace the development of plagiarism as a research topic in L2 writing, discussing the received view of plagiarism as a transgressive act and alternative understandings which have been presented in the L1 and L2 writing literature.

The article then surveys the rapidly growing body of work relating to plagiarism, primarily from an L2
writing/applied linguistic perspective, identifying salient themes. One of these is the role of intention. Significant evidence exists to support the idea, familiar to many writing teachers, that plagiarism sometimes has causes other than a desire to cheat in order to receive unearned academic credit.

This realisation has lead some scholars to believe that ‘plagiarism’, with its strong connotations of malfeasance, can be an unhelpful term to use in some contexts, and so we review alternative terminology, such as patchwriting, textual plagiarism, prototypical plagiarism, and transgressive versus non-transgressive intertextuality.

The use of alternative terminology suggests potentially differing understandings, and that is very much the case for plagiarism. Just like that other thing, we all think we can recognise it when we see it. However, as research traced in this article shows, we recognise different things.

Other themes identified include the role of textual plagiarism in language learning and a writer’s development; the role of the electronic media, investigations of cultural differences, and pedagogical approaches to guiding students away from plagiarism. Methodological issues in researching plagiarism are surveyed, and the article concludes by suggesting directions for future research.

Read the full article ‘Plagiarism in second-language writing’ here

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