IATEFL 2018 Lourdes Ortega: What is SLA research good for, anyway?

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

IATEFL Opening plenary, Tuesday 10th April, 2018
Lourdes Ortega: What is SLA research good for, anyway?

Professor Lourdes Ortega

The first plenary address at the 2018 IATEFL conference was given by Prof. Lourdes Ortega, currently Professor in the department of Linguistics at the University of Georgetown, Washington. Before specialising in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research, Lourdes taught Spanish for the Instituto Cervantes and ESL in the US.

Lourdes Ortega during her plenary at IATEFL 2018

The teacher – researcher divide

The tensions and differences of opinion between teachers and researchers originate in their different self-perceptions: teachers see themselves as practical, and believe that what they do is an ‘art’, whereas researchers see themselves as theoretical, producing detached knowledge and engaging in ‘science’. Some researchers can be very insistent that they can be of assistance to teachers but many teachers see little to no use for research, complain that it is inaccessible, difficult to understand and believe in, and difficult to adapt and adopt in their own teaching.

Lourdes Ortega in the Q & A session following her plenary

Nevertheless, Ortega notes that many teachers do have a thirst for research, wishing to find answers to issues in their own teaching. They can feel frustrated when researchers sit on the fence and are wary of making bold claims about the implications of research for teaching.

Whatever your position, the ELT community seems to agree that research is important to teaching. In the recently published ‘Action Agenda for the future of the TESOL profession’ (TESOL Convention, 27-30 March, 2018), priority nº 4 is ‘to expand the capacity for inclusive and comprehensive research’

Resolving the tensions between teaching and research

There are various proposals to bridge the gap between the research and teaching communities of practice.

Dick Allwright
Simon Borg
Sue Garton

Researchers such as those above have made the following suggestions:

· using the term ‘inquiry’ rather than research to expand the possibilities of what is included under the definition
· encouraging researchers to be more responsive to teachers needs and thereby ensuring that research is more relevant

· promoting action research, exploratory practice
· trying to find ways of making teachers and academics research together.

Other initiatives include a new project led by Emma Marsden at the University of York. OASIS is a repository of accessible summaries of research for use by language teachers.

Furthermore, teacher associations can become a hub for collective research based on members’ practical needs, e.g. CAMELTA (Cameroon) Richard Smith and Harry Kuchah (2016).

What is SLA research for?

While Ortega concedes that there is no constant value for SLA research, but in this sense, she claims, it is just like any other kind of scientific knowledge. Nowadays, we all accept that smoking is harmful for your health, but it took 40 years for this knowledge to become part of our everyday understanding.
Her objective in this plenary was to present a more positive interpretation of the research – teaching interface. She contends that there are three possible outcomes of the application of research to teaching.

1. Sometimes research can sharpen teaching: The case of Motivation

Research can be in great synergy with teaching. The leading researchers working in the field of L2 motivation are based in the UK: Zoltán Dörnyei, (University of Nottingham); Maggie Kubanyiova and Martin Lamb, (University of Leeds); Ema Ushioda, (University of Warwick)

Research proves that teachers know that motivation is central to language learning and act upon it skillfully and artfully. Ortega cites a number of studies to illustrate this. This first was Guilloteaux and Dörnyei (2008), who conducted a study in Korea (27 teachers, 1,300 students in high schools, no special training in motivational strategies) and found that teachers who do the following really motivate their students:  

· connect with students’ interests through creativity and fantasy
· use opportunities to personalise and express feelings, opinions and feelings
· set tangible task products (poster, brochure, etc.)
· give feedback free from irritation or criticisme

In another study, Moskovsky, Alrabai, Paolini & Ratcheva (2013) in Saudi Arabia found empirical evidence that teachers can be trained to be more motivating

Lamb & Wedell (2015) in Indonesia shows that inspiring teachers can motivate students. These are teachers who:

· are charismatic
· have high professionalism
· have good relations with students
· love teaching English
· respect local norms but go beyond them

In conclusion, Ortega states that research into ‘Motivation’ ... 'is an area where SLA researchers have mostly succeeded in turning empirical knowledge into knowledge that can make the lives of teachers better’


2. Sometimes research falls short of being relevant (as yet): The case of Error Correction

Most teachers do error correction. Most students expect it and teachers see it as a central part of our job, but we also worry about the use and type of error correction in the age of CLT, as we have moved away from the Native Speaker ‘myth’: students are no longer expected to have perfect grammar or pronunciation. We also know that misplaced or excessive error correction may be detrimental to learner motivation. Last but not least, error correction, especially in writing, is time-consuming for an overstretched profession.
There is plentiful research into Error Correction in the field of SLA but the results are inconclusive and don’t help teachers. Until the 2010s, studies suggested that error correction didn’t really work (e.g. Truscott, 1996, 1999, 2007; Mackey et al., 2007). In contrast, since the 2010s, results (e.g. Bitchener, 2008; van Beuningen et al., 2012; Li, 2010; Lyster & Saito, 2010; Kang & Han, 2015; Nassaji, 2017) have given more reason for optimism.

Furthermore, Ortega notes that some studies go in for a bit of ‘teacher bashing’. For example, in 1985, Zamel stated ‘Teachers give written comments that are too vague for students to understand’. Rod Ellis (1990, p. 73) points out that teachers are inconsistent in error correction during classroom oral interactions: sometimes they correct, sometimes they don’t. But this is probably due to the fact that existing research doesn’t take into account the complexity of the factors surrounding the decision to correct or not.

One of the many factors that influence these online decisions is the learner’s sense of identity. Ortega cites an example provided by one of her graduate students. A learner would repeatedly say ‘I came from Korea’. When told she should use the present tense in this expression, she replied that she didn’t want to go back to Korea, as this was part of her past, she saw herself as an American citizen now, and therefore was choosing to use the past tense to make that clear.

Another factor is agency. Cohen and Robbins, (1976) give the example of ‘Eva’, born in China but whose family moved around many times when she was growing up, finally arriving in the US at age 19. She felt she had had a sub-par education: ‘Everything was always skip, skip, skip. I wasn’t taught the way a person is supposed to be taught’.

The reality is that good teachers act, guided....

‘...by their knowledge of individual pupils, and their moment-to-moment ‘reading’ of pupils’ developing understanding and skill, as well as their current level of interest and task involvement’

Ross Mitchell, (2000, p. 297-298)

Most error correction research does not take these factors into account and only observes external behaviours and discrete linguistic responses. Until that changes, it’s an area that falls short of being relevant to teaching. If research is inconclusive and decontextualised, teachers should treat the findings with critical mistrust. Ortega recommends approaching error correction in our classes as a rich process of self-discovery! Above all, she encourages us not to lose faith in SLA research, but to have realistic expectations. As with other kinds of scientific knowledge (e.g. the negative effects of smoking) it takes time for results to achieve widespread recognition and application. Nowadays, nobody will deny the link between smoking and death, but we also know that this is not true for every individual, so we live with the contradiction. When SLA researchers say ‘it depends’, ‘more research is needed’, it can be frustrating, but we can make choices as to what we do with the knowledge!

3. Sometimes research is the only way to see things differently: the case of Age Effects and Multilingualism

Research can, at times, challenge and disprove commonly held assumptions. Two areas of research are given to illustrate this: Age Effects and Multilingualism.

a. ‘Age Effects’ and the assumption that ‘earlier is better’ 

It is a widely held belief that ‘the earlier, the better’ when it comes to language learning, but there is plentiful research which challenges or disproves this. In fact, in the case of immigrant children learning a new language in naturalístic, immersion situations, studies have shown that later is faster! The studies span a wide range of ages and contexts: bilingual children in different age ranges (Liceras et al., 2005; Gathercole et al., 2014; Roesch and Chondrogianni, 2016; Paradis, 2008); international adoptees (Snedeker et al., 2012) and when American Sign Language is the only L1 (Ferjan Ramirez et al., 2013). In all these different contexts, children who start learning a little later seem to experience an acceleration ‘boost’. 

In EFL situations, later is faster initially, and then differences level out by the end of high school. There is no benefit to starting earlier. (Muñoz, 2006, 2012, 2014; Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016; Jaekel et al., 2017). Even adults can learn faster than children for the first 1-3 years, because they are cognitively and socially more mature (e.g. Krashen, Long & Scarcella, 1979; Oh et al., 2011).

b. ‘Multilingualism’ and the assumption that languages compete in a zero-sum game.

Popular wisdom dictates that it is confusing when languages compete and that we need to inhibit one of the languages to allow the other to develop successfully. Research clearly shows that this is not true. In fact, very robust findings, even if they are ignored, show that the languages of an individual support each other (Pisa data for 2012 – 120,000 students over 18 countries). Students who spoke both the home and the majority language more had better school (majority language) achievement (Agirdag & Vanlaar, 2016). Another large-scale study in the US found the gains in English were larger for children who spoke the heritage language at home (Winsler et al., 2014). In Sweden, those who did best in their home language (Spanish) were also those who did best in the majority Language (Swedish) (Bylund et al., 2012).

All of which means more L1 = better L2.

Accordingly, the following commonly held beliefs and practices are not supported by research

- Early introduction of FLs in schools, often pushed by ministries and parents.
- Avoiding the L1 in the classroom to maximise L2.
- TL only immersion programmes

These studies give us reason to rethink and transform some common practices and policies. Reseach can make us see the world of teaching differently.


‘Teaching is complex, and teaching a language is particularly complex, and there are no straightforward formulae or recipes that will be effective in every context (Andon & Leung, 2014, p. 70).

Misty Andoniu (2015) says ‘teachers’ knowledge is a tapestry ... and teachers must learn to find themselves in the ‘cross-stitches’’

Ortega’s recommendation is that we teachers apply SLA research as we see fit if it resonates with our practice and makes our teaching life better. We should seek to engage with research that challenges our daily practice, in the knowledge that scientific results may be generally but not individually true. We need to search for relevance and act upon it when we find it.


Andon, N. & Leung, C. (2014). The role of approaches and methods in second language teacher education. Language Teachers and Teaching: Global Perspectives, Local Initiatives. (Eds.) Selim Ben Said; Lawrence Jun Zhang. Routledge.

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Bitchener, J. (2008). Evidence in support of written corrective feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing 17, 102–118.

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