The first plenary of the 2018 IATEFL conference in Brighton in April was given by Lourdes Ortega on the topic of What is SLA research good for, anyway? Scroll down for the YouTube link and start at around 05:18 though there were technical glitches are the talk doesn’t get going until around 09:00. (This summary is based on what I could glean from the live stream: the set-up favoured the speaker over the slides, so references were hard to catch.)
Ortega started with a familiar opposition between teachers as practice-oriented “artists” versus researchers as thinking-oriented “scientists.” Some researchers claim to assist teachers, but others suggest research should be applied with caution (Hatch). The recent TESOL action agenda has as its 4th priority “to expand capacity for inclusive and comprehensive research,” underlining the continuing importance of research to the field.
Speaking as a “down-to-earth SLA researcher” to an ELT audience, Ortega urges language teachers to search SLA research for relevance and act only when they find it. They should also be careful not to seek simple universal truths since both SLA research and teaching are complex. These are the main take-aways from this talk. She arrives at this conclusion as follows.
- alternative terms for research: inquiry, action research, and exploratory research (cf Garton, Allwright, Borg)
- OASIS repository of accessible summaries (Marsden)
- teacher association research (CAMELTA, Smith & Kuchah)
- sharpen teaching (e.g. motivation research)
- falls short of relevance for teaching (e.g., error correction research)
- change teachers’ perspectives (e.g., age research, research on multilingualism)
Ortega examines each example in turn.
1. SLA research sharpens teaching: motivation
How can teachers motivate students? Motivation researchers cited include Dornyei and Ushioda. Research shows that specific teacher behaviours increase learner motivation and that these behaviours can be taught.
- Guilloteaux & Dornyei, 2008: Korea 27 teachers, 1300 – connection with interests, personalisation, feedback without personal criticism
- Moskovsky et al 2013: high schools, colleges – teachers can be trained to be more motivated
- Lamb & Wedell 2015
This is an example of a successful contribution by SLA researchers to “improving teachers’ lives.”
2. SLA is not relevant to teaching: error correction
Most teachers do error correction but also worry about it. SLA research has investigated the question but has no good answer so far – the jury is still out. Research up to 2010 suggests reasons for pessimism (Truscott 1996, Mackey et al), while since 2010, findings suggest a role for error correction (e.g., Nassaji 2017). Ortega also provides examples of “teacher bashing” with respect to vague or inconsistent error correction (Zamel 1985; Chaudron 1988, Ellis 1990).
Ortega concludes that research is “unaccountable to the complexity of error correction practice” which I understand to mean ‘currently inadequate to determine an effect on language learning and so inform teaching practice.’ She gives examples of a) non-standard L2 use deriving from idiosyncratic personal preferences (“I came from Korea”) and b) low self-efficacy among L2 users (“I wasn’t taught in the right way”). Ortega quotes Mitchell (2000) on the complex factors guiding good teachers and suggests teachers see error correction as part of “a rich journey of personal self-discovery.”
Rather than lose faith in SLA research, teachers need to have realistic expectations.
3. Research is the only way to see differently: age, multilingualism
Two issues where SLA research provides new scientific knowledge and new understanding relevant to teaching are:
- Age – is earlier better or not?
- Multilingualism – do languages compete in a “zero-sum game?”
Ortega states that earlier is not better, all things being equal and across all contexts. In naturalistic immersion situations, later is faster. She cites work with bilingual language users (Blom & Bosma 2016), research on international adoptees, and sign language research. In foreign language contexts, later is faster initially, and no better or worse than earlier by end of high school (e.g. starting at 8 or 13 makes no difference; Munoz 2006, Pfenniger & Singleton in preparation). Even among adults in-country, these learners are faster than children for 1-3 years
Regarding multilingualism, robust but ignored findings show that languages support each other in the same individual. There is synergy rather than competition. Ortega cites
- Agirdag & Vanlaar 2018: Pisa 2012 data on 120 000 students in 18 countries show that children using both a home language and a majority language at school do better in school (in majority language) than monolingual children
- Winsler et al 2014 – Spanish home language supported English gains at school
- Bylund Abramson – Spanish-Swedish bilinguals are best in home language but also majority language
Thus “more L1 means better L2,” and Ortega claims this finding is underutilised in policies, practices and thinking.
So earlier is not better and languages do not compete in a zero-sum game, and this shakes teaching practices, such as
- Early start, pushed by governments and parents
- Avoiding L1 in classroom
- language pledges in study abroad programmes
- strict language separation in bilingual teaching
These research findings suggest the above are questionable practices, worthy of closer inspection. Should we lose faith in current teaching practices? Ortega argues that we should not: the IATEFL programme involves several presentations on these topics which utilise this kind of research. She also quotes other authors on the complexity of language teaching.
For Ortega, then, research and teaching are both complicated and sometimes there is good synergy (e.g. motivation research), but other times there missed opportunities (e.g., error correction), and sometimes teachers need to adapt to research findings (e.g. age-related findings, multilingualism) to transform practice in line with scientific knowledge.
SLA research doesn’t have fixed value. Teachers should ask themselves:
- Does it amplify practice? Then apply it.
- Does the relevance leave me unconvinced? Then put it aside.
- Does it open up new understanding? Then engage with it.
Agirdag, O., & Vanlaar, G. (2018). Does more exposure to the language of instruction lead to higher academic achievement? A cross-national examination. International Journal of Bilingualism, 22(1), 123-137.
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Blom, E., & Bosma, E. (2016). The sooner the better? An investigation into the role of age of onset and its relation with transfer and exposure in bilingual Frisian–Dutch children. Journal of child language, 43(3), 581-607.
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Guilloteaux, M. J., & Dörnyei, Z. (2008). Motivating language learners: A classroom‐oriented investigation of the effects of motivational strategies on student motivation. TESOL Quarterly, 42(1), 55-77.
Lamb, M., & Wedell, M. (2015). Cultural contrasts and commonalities in inspiring language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 19(2), 207-224.
Mackey, A., Gass, S., & McDonough, K. (2000). How do learners perceive interactional feedback?. Studies in second language acquisition, 22(4), 471-497.
Moskovsky, C., Alrabai, F., Paolini, S., & Ratcheva, S. (2013). The effects of teachers’ motivational strategies on learners’ motivation: A controlled investigation of second language acquisition. Language Learning, 63(1), 34-62.
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Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language learning, 46(2), 327-369.
Nassaji, H. (2017). The effectiveness of extensive versus intensive recasts for learning L2 grammar. The Modern Language Journal, 101(2), 353-368.
Pfenninger, S. E., and D. Singleton (I n prep a ) . Recent advances in quantitative methods in age – related research.
Pfenninger, Simone E. and David Singleton. ( In prep b ) . Beyond Age Effects – Facet s, Facts and Factors of Foreign Language Instruction in a Mu ltilingual State . Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
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