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 eserafi2@gmu.edu.

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 

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