Nine interesting foreign language research findings you may not know about

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In  this post I am going to share with the reader a very succinct summary of 9 pieces of research I have recently come across which I found interesting and have impacted my classroom practice in one way or another. They are not presented in any particular order.

  1. Green and Hecht 1992 – Area: Explicit grammar instruction and teaching of aspect

Green and Hecht investigated 300 German learners of English. They asked them to correct 12 errors in context and to offer an explanation of the rule. Most interesting finding: the students could correct 78 % of the errors but could not provide an explanation for more than 46 % of the grammar rules that referred to those errors. They identified a set of rules that were hard to learn (i.e. most students did not recall them) and a set of easy rules (the vast majority of them could recall them successfully). Their implications for teaching: the explicit teaching of grammar may actually not work for all grammar items. For example, the teaching of aspect (e.g. Imperfect vs Preterite in Spanish), would be more effectively taught, according to them, by exposure to masses of comprehensible input (e.g. narrative texts) rather than through the use of PPTs or diagrams on the classroom whiteboard/screen – in fact Blyth (1997) and Macaro (2002a) demonstrated the futility of drawing horizontal lines interrupted by vertical ones to indicate that the perfect tense ends the action.

My conclusions: I do not entirely agree with Blyth and Macaro that explicit explanation of grammar in the realm of aspect does not work and I do like diagrams (although they do not work with all of one’s students). However, I do agree with Green and Hecht (1992) that the best way to teach aspect is through exposure to masses of comprehensible input containing examples of aspect in context. The grammar explanation and production phase may be carried out at a later stage.

  1. Milton and Meara (1998) – Comparative study of vocabulary learning between German, English and Greek students aged 14-15 years.

197 students from the three countries studying similar syllabi for the same number of years were tested on their vocabulary. The findings were that:

1.The British students’ score was the worst (averaging at 60 %). According to the researchers, they showed a poor grasp of basic vocabulary ;

2.They spent less time learning and were set lower goals than their German and Greek counterparts;

3. 25 % of the British students scored so low (after four years of MFL learning) that the researchers questioned whether they had learnt anything at all.

The authors of the study also found that British learners are not necessarily worse in terms of language aptitude; rather, they questioned the effectiveness of MFL teaching in the UK.

My conclusions: this study is quite old and the sample they used may not be indicative of the overall British student population. If it were, though, representative of the general situation in Britain, teachers may have to – as I have advocated in several previous blogs of mine – consciously recycle words over and over again, not just within the same units, but across units.

Moreover a study of 850 EFL learners, by Gu and Johnson (1996), may indicate an important issue underlying our students poor vocabulary retention; they found that students who excelled in vocabulary size were those who used three metacognitive strategies in addition to the cognitive strategies used by less effective vocabulary learners : selective attention to words (deciding to focus on certain words worth memorizing), self-initiation (making an effort to learn beyond the classroom and the exam system) and deliberate activation of newly-learnt words (trying out using that word independently to obtain positive or negative feedback as to the correctness of their use) . Teaching should aim, in other words, at developing learner autonomy and motivation to apply all of these strategies independently outside the classroom.

  1. Knight (1994) – Using dictionaries whilst reading – effects on vocabulary learning

Knight gave her subjects a text to read on a computer. One group had access to electronic dictionaries whilst the other did not. She found that those who did use the dictionary and not simply guessing strategies, actually scored higher in a subsequent vocabulary test. This and other previous (Luppescu and Day, 1993) and subsequent studies (Laufer & Hadar, 1997; Laufer & Hill, 2000; Laufer & Kimmel,1997) suggest that students should not be barred from using dictionaries in lessons. These findings are important for 1:1 (tablet or PC) school settings considering the availability of free online dictionaries (e.g.

  1. Anderson and Jordan (1998) – Rate of forgetting

Anderson and Jordan set out to investigate the number of words that could be recalled by their informants immediately after initial learning, 1 week, 3 weeks, and 8 weeks thereafter. They identified a learning rate of 66%, 48%, 39%, and 37% respectively. The obvious implication is that, if immediately after learning the subjects could not recall 66 % of the target vocabulary, consolidation should start then and continue (at spaced intervals – through recycling in lessons or as homework) for several weeks. At several points during the school year, I remind my students of Anderson and Jordan’s study and show them the following diagram. It usually strikes a chord with a lot of them:


  1. Erler (2003) – Relationship between phonemic awareness and L2 reading proficiency

Erler set out to investigate the obstacles of learners of French as a foreign language in England. She studied 11-12 year olds. She found that there was a strong correlation between low level of phonemic awareness and reading skills (especialy word recognition skills). She concluded that explicit training and practice in the grapheme-phoneme system (i.e. how letters/combination of letters are pronounced) of French would improve L1-English learners’ reading proficiency in that language. This find corroborates other findings by Muter and Diethelm (2001) and Comeau et al (1999). The implications is that micro-listening enhancers of the like I discussed in a previous blog (e.g. ‘Micro-listening skills tasks you may not do in your lessons’) or any other teaching of phonics should be performed in class much more often than it is currently done in many UK MFL classrooms.

Please note: teaching pronunciation and decoding skills instruction are not the same thing.  Pronunciation is about understanding how sounds are produced by the articulators, whilst teaching decoding skills means instructing learners on how to convert letters and combination of letters into sound. Also, effective decoding-skill instruction occurs in communicative contexts (whether through receptive or productive processing) not simply through matching sounds with gestures and/or phonetic symbols.

  1. Feyten (1991) – Listening ability as predictor of success

Feyten investigated the possibility that listening ability may be a predictor of success in foreign language learning. The researcher assessed the students at pre-test using a variety of tasks and measures of listening proficiency. After a ten-week course she tested them again (post-test) and found that there was a strong correlation between listening ability and overall foreign language acquisition, i.e.: the students who had scored high at pre-test did better at post-test not just in listening, but also in written grammar, reading and vocabulary assessment. Listening was a better predictor of foreign language proficiency than any other individual factor (e.g. gender, previous learning history, etc.).

My implications: we should take listening more seriously than we currently do. Increased exposure to listening input and more frequent teaching of listening strategies are paramount in the light of such evidence. Any effective baseline assessment at the outset of a course ought to include a strong listening comprehension component; the latter ought to include a specific decoding-skill assessment element.

  1. Graham (1997) – Identification of foreign language learners’ listening strategies

This study investigated the listening strategies of 17-year-old English learners of German and French. Amongst other things she found the following issues undermining their listening comprehension. Firstly, they were slow in identifying key items in a text. Secondly, they often misheard words or syllables and transcribed what they believed they had heard thereby getting distracted. Graham’s conclusions were that weaker students overcompensated for lack of lexical knowledge by overusing top-down strategies (e.g. spotting key words as an aid to grasp meaning).

My implications are that Graham’s research evidence, which echoes finding from Mendelsohn (1998) and other studies, should make us wary of getting students to over-rely on guessing strategies based on key-words recognition. Teachers should focus on bottom-up processing skills much more than they currently do, e.g. by practising (a) micro-listening skills; (b) narrow listening or any other listening instruction methodology which emphasizes recycling of the same vocabulary through comprehensible input (N.B. not necessarily through videos or audio-tracks; it can be teacher-based, in absence of other resources); (c) listening with transcripts – whole, gapped or manipulated in such a way as to focus learners on phoneme-grapheme correspondence.

  1. Polio et al. (1998) – Effectiveness of editing instruction

Polio et al. (1998) set out to investigate whether additional editing instruction – the innovative feature of the study – would enhance learners’ ability to reduce errors in revised essays. 65 learners on a university EAP course were randomly assigned to an experimental and a control group who wrote four journal entries each week for seven weeks. Whereas the control group did not receive any feedback, the experimental group was involved in (1) grammar review and editing exercises and (2) revision of the journal entries, both of which were followed by teacher corrective feedback. On each pre- and post-tests, the learners wrote a 30-minute composition which they were asked to improve in 60 minutes two days later. Linguistic accuracy was calculated as a ratio of error-free T-units to the total number of T-units in the composition.

The results suggested that the experimental group did not outperform the control group. The researchers conjectured that the validity of their results might have been undermined by the assessment measure used (T-units) and/or the relatively short duration of the treatment. They also hypothesised that the instruction the control group received might have been so effective that the additional practice for the experimental group did not make any difference.

The implications of this study are that editing instruction may take longer than seven weeks in order to be effective. Thus, the one-off editing instruction sessions that many teachers do on finding common errors in their students’ essays to address the grammar issues that refer to them, are absolutely futile, unless they are followed up by extensive and focused practice with lots of recycling.

  1. Elliott (1995) – Effect of explicit instruction on pronunciation

Elliott set out to investigate the effects of improving learner attitude toward pronunciation and of explicitly teaching pronunciation on his subjects (66 L1 students of Spanish). He compared the experimental group (which received 10-15 minutes of instruction per lesson over a semester) with a group of students whose pronunciation was corrected only when it impeded understanding. The results were highly significant, both in terms of improved accent and of attitude (92 % of the informants being positive about the treatment). The experimental group outperformed the control group.

Implications: this study , which confirms evidence from several others (e.g. Elliot 1997; Zampini, 1994), confirms that explicit pronunciation instruction is more effective than implicit instruction whereby L2 learners are expected to learn pronunciation simply by exposure to comprehensible input. Arteaga’s (2000) review of US Spanish textbooks found that only 4 out of 10 Spanish textbooks include activities attempting to teach pronunciation. I suspect that the figure may be even lower in the UK. In the light of Elliott’s findings, this is quite appalling, as the mastery of phonology not only is a catalyst of reading ability but also of listening and speaking proficiency as well as playing an enormous role in Working Memory’s processing efficiency in general (see my blog: ‘ Eight important facts about Working Memory’).


8 thoughts on “Nine interesting foreign language research findings you may not know about

  1. The latest textbooks in England are doing more explicit phonics and strategies. I have been proof-reading/reviewing the new Tricolore and they are both a significant feature. Other books are doign the same. What an interesting blog! So much to get the teeth into. I bet you could put together a longer list of good ideas from research. I’m tempted to have a go myself (using your blogs!).

  2. Thanks for this post. I like the Green and Hecht article but worry that the term ‘explicit teaching’ is often taken to mean teaching learners rules about grammar, normally in a teacher-fronted manner. Surely it just means ‘the learner is aware of what has been learned’ (Richards and Schmidt 2002:250) and this may not or may not involve learning rules. We could imagine, for example, a functional lesson on requests which was explicit in that learners were clearly aware of what they were learning but where they learnt request phrases as whole chunks without analysis of their construction.. Similarly, rules can be learnt in an inductive yet explicit way, through guided discovery. Student can be guided by the teacher towards finding rules for themselves but will still know what it is they have learnt….or at least we hope so!

  3. Thank you for confirming many of my own practical observations,which I’ve been attempting to explain without much success to colleagues in my school. In particular, the excessive written corrective feedback which is now so fashionable – but practically fruitless.
    I was particularly thrilled when I read:
    (c) listening with transcripts – whole, gapped or manipulated in such a way as to focus learners on phoneme-grapheme correspondence. . . .
    because after 17 years of teaching English to EAL learners in a UK secondary school, (and EAL students who were born in the UK, but who are struggling with literacy in English), I’ve found this to be the single most useful and effective tool of all.
    Dare I make a decidedly non-academic suggestion?
    In addition to decoding phonemes, making sense of context, learning the connections between the written shapes and the sounds, and reinforcing the correct spellings of strange irregular words – it’s also fun.
    Without fun – as educators, we have probably lost the attention of most of the class. I’ve found that paying attention is probably the most difficult and under-researched skill to sustain.

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