ERIC Identifier: ED321550
Publication Date: 1990-05-00
Author: Nunan, David
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
Second Language Classroom Research. ERIC Digest.
Second (or foreign) language classroom research is research that is
carried out in the language classroom for the purpose of answering important
questions about the learning and teaching of foreign languages. This kind
of research derives its data from either genuine foreign language classrooms
(classrooms specifically constituted for the purposes of foreign language
learning and teaching) or in experimental laboratory settings that are
set up for the purpose of research. These experimental settings are sometimes
established to replicate or recreate what happens in language classrooms,
although more often than not laboratory settings make no pretense at such
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE AIMS AND ISSUES IN CLASSROOM RESEARCH?
Classroom research can focus on teachers or on learners, or on the interaction
between teachers and learners. Teacher-focused research examines such factors
as the classroom decision-making processes of teachers, and what is referred
to as teacher talk. Teacher talk encompasses the kinds of questions that
teachers ask, the amount and type of talking that teachers do, the type
of error correction and feedback that teachers provide, and the speech
modifications teachers make when talking to second language learners.
Research that focuses on the learner looks at, for example, the developmental
aspects of learner language, the learning styles and strategies used by
different learners, the type of language prompted by various types of materials
and pedagogic tasks, the classroom interaction that takes place between
learners, and the effect of this interaction on learner language development.
A great deal of second language classroom research is carried out within
the subdiscipline of applied linguistics known as Second Language Acquisition
(SLA). The ultimate goal of SLA research is to describe and to predict
the stages that learners pass through in acquiring a second language, and
to identify the processes through which learners acquire the target language.
The purpose of classroom-oriented research is to identify the pedagogic
variables that may facilitate or impede acquisition. The variables may
relate to the learner, the teacher, the instructional treatment/environment
or some form of interaction among these factors.
WHAT ARE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS ADDRESSED BY RECENT SECOND LANGUAGE CLASSROOM
--What types of classroom organization and grouping patterns facilitate
second language development? --What types of tasks and activities facilitate
--What are the characteristics of teacher talk (including how much teachers
talk, the kinds of questions they ask, the type of error feedback they
provide, how and what kind of instruction/direction they give) and what
are the implications of this talk for acquisition?
--Does formal instruction make a difference to the rate or route of
--What affective variables correlate with second language achievement?
--What type of teacher speech modifications facilitate comprehension
and, by implication, acquisition?
--What interactional modifications between learners facilitate comprehension,
and by implication, acquisition?
One major branch of SLA research that is concerned with the identification
of the learning processes focuses on the similarities and differences between
input and interaction inside as well as outside the classroom. It has been
observed that there are clear differences in the patterns of interaction,
language functions, types of teacher questions, and so on, found both in
the classroom and in natural settings outside of the classroom. (See, for
example, research reviewed by Chaudron, 1988, for a summary of the similarities
and differences that exist between the two settings and the possible consequences
of these for acquisition.) The implications of these differences, and the
extent to which classroom interaction should resemble real life interaction,
are still being debated (van Lier, 1988).
WHAT RESEARCH TRADITIONS ARE EMPLOYED BY SECOND LANGUAGE CLASSROOM
Chaudron (1988) identifies four traditions in second language classroom
research: (1) psychometric studies, (2) interaction analysis, (3) discourse
analysis, and (4) ethnographic analysis. Psychometric studies typically
involve the use of the so-called experimental method with pre- and post-tests
for both control and experimental groups. Interaction and discourse analysis
involve the use of analytical observation schemes. The former focuses on
the social meanings inherent in classroom interaction, while the latter
focuses on the linguistic aspects of interaction. The fourth tradition
identified by Chaudron is classroom ethnography. According to Chaudron,
this tradition does not strive for objectivity or neutrality, but offers
interpretive analyses of the events occurring in the classroom. Whether
interaction analysis and discourse analysis represent distinct traditions
of classroom research is a matter of debate. It could be argued that they
are methods of data collection rather than separate traditions. If this
view is accepted, then Chaudron's four traditions become just two--the
psychometric and the ethnographic, and this mirrors the commonly observed
distinction within the mainstream educational literature between qualitative
and quantitative methods. (Although, in recent years, it has been observed
that this distinction is oversimplistic.)
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR CLASSROOM RESEARCH?
The fact that the language classroom is specifically designed for the
purpose of facilitating language learning should constitute sufficient
justification for studying what goes on there. Despite the opportunity
for studying second language acquisition through classroom research, and
despite the growing attention the second language acquisition field is
receiving, there is still comparatively little research that is actually
carried out in language classrooms. More research is needed that focuses
on what does or does not take place in the language classroom. The existence,
and indeed persistence, of this state of ignorance may seem surprising
given the frequency with which attempts are made to import insights into
the second language classrooms from research conducted outside the classroom.
The most pressing need at the moment is for contextualized research, that
is, research that is carried out in real classrooms, not in simulated environments
that are constituted for the purposes, not of teaching and learning, but
of research. In addition, research is needed in areas that broaden the
agenda away from a rather narrow focus on input and interaction as defined
by one particular tradition of second language acquisition research. Finally,
much current research is couched within a tradition that assumes that learning
takes place in a social vacuum; and there is, in consequence, the need
for counterbalancing research that takes cognizance of social and interpersonal
variables and their effects on the language that learners use and learn.
Chaudron, C. (1988). "Second language classroom: Research on
teaching and learning." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. van
Lier, L. (1988). "The classroom and the language learner." London: Longman.
FOR FURTHER READING
Allwright, D. (1988). "Observation in the language classroom." London:
Ellis, R. (1985). "Understanding second language acquisition." Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Fanselow, J. (1987). "Breaking rules." New York: Longman.
Heath, S.B. (1983). "Ways with words." Cambridge: Cambridge University
Larsen-Freeman, D., & Long, M.H. (Forthcoming). "An introduction
to second language acquisition research." London: Longman.
Nunan, D. (Ed.). (1987). "Applying second language acquisition research."
Nunan, D. (1989). "Understanding language classrooms." London: Prentice-Hall
Richards, J., & Nunan, D. (Eds.). (1990). "Second language teacher
education." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.