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Review of  Expertise in Second Language Learning and Teaching

Reviewer: Larry L. LaFond
Book Title: Expertise in Second Language Learning and Teaching
Book Author: Keith Johnson
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.2578

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EDITOR: Keith Johnson
TITLE: Expertise in Second Language Learning and Teaching
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2005

Larry LaFond, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville


Thomas Mann once stated that, 'A writer is someone for whom writing is more
difficult than it is for other people,' suggesting that we cannot reliably
identify experts in a field by looking at the ease or rapidity with which
they ply their trade. Indeed, common assumptions held about expertise
frequently prove to be mistaken, which makes the study of expertise all the
more important, and intriguing.

The study of expertise in language learning and teaching is as about as old
as the fields of language learning and teaching themselves, as Keith
Johnson's introduction to Expertise in Language Learning and Language
Teaching argues. Johnson claims that any statement about language 'implies
a view about what it is an expert user of the language is able to do.'
Already in the 1970s, interest in what 'Good Language Learners' could do
(Rubin 1975, Stern 1975) generated a great deal of interest among language
teachers and researchers. Nevertheless, the study of expertise is in many
ways a recent field of study that is drawing attention from diverging
disciplines. Psychologists and neurologists are currently exploring the
perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that lead people to become experts,
sociologists and anthropologists are now considering how societies perceive
expertise and the role that expertise plays in social interactions, lawyers
and judges are seeking to understand how to evaluate and adjudicate
expertise, and computer scientists are still working on models to simulate
the acquisition of expertise and expert behavior.

Recent explorations into expertise in second language teaching and learning
have yielded a number of important results worthy of our attention, and to
share some of these results Johnson has brought together eleven authors to
review how expertise relates to language learning, use, and teaching.


The book is divided broadly into three, somewhat uneven, parts: Part I:
Expertise in General (one chapter), Part II: Expertise in Language Learning
and Use (six chapters), and Part III: Expertise in Language Teaching (four
chapters). These sections are preceded by an introduction in which Johnson
previews each of the eleven chapters. This introduction is itself
interesting, and makes the point that although applied linguists might have
been aware of studies of expertise that have been undertaken in
non-linguistic domains, they have been relatively slow to extend these
findings to language learning. Johnson believes the reason for this
reticence has been the prevailing construct of language learning as a
process wholly unlike other learned behaviors, i.e., that developmental
patterns in language learning, at least first language learning, are best
understood by looking at innate biological mechanisms. This has regularly
led to investigations of the connections between first language and second
language learning, rather than investigations of how gaining expertise in
second language learning compares to gaining expertise in other domains,
e.g., math or music. This discussion carries readers into the first
chapter of the book, also written by Johnson, where an overview is provided
concerning what we have learned about expertise in non-linguistic domains.
Johnson, beginning with De Groot's (1978) work on chess expertise,
discusses the early aspirations (and disappointments) of computer
scientists in regards to AI and the simulation of human expertise in both
structured and unstructured domains. He then surveys expertise research
more broadly, discussing various hypotheses and claims regarding expertise,
including a number of early beliefs about expertise that appear not to
always hold (e.g., that experts have better memories, have greater ability
to think deeply, or display superior performance in a wide range of areas.)

Chapter 2, written by Joan Rubin, moves the discussion of expertise into
the domain of the language learner. Rubin first offers her own
comprehensive model of expertise as it relates the learning processes of
successful language learners, then, moving backward historically, shows how
this model grows out of research conducted in the last thirty years,
arriving eventually at a review of the 'Good Language Learner' (GLL)
studies (Naiman, Frohlich, and Stern 1975; Rubin 1975, Stern 1975). She
notes the shifting emphases in GLL studies-from knowledge, to procedures,
to metacognitive knowledge and strategies-and she briefly discusses some
methodological issues related to GLL research.

Chapters 3-6 isolate the standard four language skills (listening, reading,
speaking, and writing) and consider what we know about expertise in each of
these areas. This section begins with Christine Goh's argument that
understanding the characteristics of listening expertise may assist
teachers in identifying the kinds of tasks that will lead to that
expertise. Goh offers suggestions on how to help learners develop
listening expertise, focusing on a balanced development of the various
components that go into listening expertise-knowledge of language,
metacognitive knowledge, processing and interactional strategies, and the
exercise of control.

In chapter 4, Catherine Wallace looks at reading expertise and finds that a
number of features frequently associated with expertise do not fit the
reading enterprise. Reading expertise does not always develop in an
incremental fashion, levels of expertise are greatly dependent on type of
reading being done, automaticity plays a lesser role in this domain, and
most interestingly, L2 learners sometimes outperform native speakers in
certain skills critical to reading. This is especially true if one
understands 'reading' not only in the limited terms of comprehension, but
in the fuller sense of critical interpretation. These facts lead Wallace
to question whether the usual distinctions between novice/expert can be
maintained in the area of reading.

Chapter 5, by Martin Bygate, begins with a focus on how a learner develops
oral expertise, focusing initially on the oral language 'repertoires' that
are relevant for an L2 speaker and how an L2 speaker's ability to
internalize and handle discourse patterns improves over time. Moving from
Dreyfus and Dreyfus' (1986) suggestion that expertise develops as learners
become increasingly aware of contextual factors and differing options for
verbal moves, and drawing on quite a bit of general skills literature,
Bygate discusses a number of implications for language teaching, providing
numerous concrete suggestions for the development of oral skills.

Sara Cushing Weigle turns to writing expertise to conclude the set of
chapters related to the four skills. As Weigle notes, expertise in this
area is somewhat unlike other areas of language in several important ways.
For example, expertise in writing is not guaranteed even for L1 speakers,
nor do some languages even have writing systems. The differing nature of
L2 writing expertise complicates matters, and introduces an additional set
of individual factors affecting learner outcomes. As with Bygate's
chapter, Weigle also focuses on contextualization of knowledge as a key
component to expertise and spends a significant part of her chapter dealing
with pedagogical and research implications.

Chapters 7 completes the second section of the book with Steven McDonough's
chapter on training language learning expertise. This chapter features a
discussion about the relationship between proficiency and strategy use,
leading to one discussion of the problem of determining whether greater
proficiency leads to greater strategy use, or vice versa, or whether the
relationship between the two is not linear at all. This issue is taken up
several times by different authors in this volume. McDonough concedes the
current impossibility of knowing, for any particular novice, whether
adopting the practices of experts will lead that person to success;
nevertheless, he maintains that the weight of evidence supports the use of
strategy training techniques.

The final section of the book includes essays by Amy Tsui, Simon Borg, Alan
Waters, and Virginia Samuda, each addressing certain aspects of language
teaching. The broadest of these is Tsui's overview of expertise studies on
teaching, found in Chapter 8. Tsui's work highlights the difficulties in
defining expertise in teaching. There are obvious problems with each of
the most widely adopted criteria, years of teaching experience, teaching
awards or nominations, or student achievement scores on standardized tests.
Tsui persuasively argues, however, that expertise in teaching is not only
a state but also a process, and expert teachers are those who engage in
'problematising the unproblematic' (Tsui 2003) and are characterized by
their 'resistance to automaticity' (Ericsson 2002).

In Chapter 9, Borg looks specifically at teacher cognition ('what teachers
know, believe, and think') in relation to classroom practice. Much of what
we have learned about teachers' cognitions to date has come from
educational research, so Borg begins by surveying many of the findings of
the last 25 years in that field. The rest of the chapter is then spent
dealing with teaching practice related to the reasons teachers make certain
decisions and depart from lesson plans, as well as cognition and context,
cognition and experience, and a trio of studies used to illustrate and
extend the notion that expert teachers are those who readily improvise
based on contextual clues in the classroom.

Expertise in teacher education is the theme of Chapter 10, by Alan Waters.
Waters focuses this chapter on the advantages, disadvantages and
possibilities of different configurations and learning contexts in teacher
education. A key argument of this chapter is that expertise in teacher
training requires an understanding of how teachers learn and an ability to
use this understanding to create learning opportunities that may provide
teachers with the kinds of skills, knowledge, concepts and attitudes they
need to become effective teachers. Nearly all the chapters in this volume
conclude with a call for further research in the given area, but it seems
especially clear here that far less work has gone into understanding what
makes one an expert teacher educator than has gone into considering the
expertise of learners or teachers.

Chapter 11 concludes this section, and the volume, with Virginia Samuda's
discussion of expertise in pedagogic task design. Samuda grants that
applied linguists have recently shown interest in task-based teaching and
task design, but she notes that little empirical study has gone into
'understanding the 'task' of task design' and what expertise in task design
might look like. Addressing this question, Samuda focuses on two studies
(Johnson's 2003 study and her own), which she believes exemplify how an
expertise perspective can lead to empirically-grounded insights, and allow
us to engage design issues at a greater level of detail than we normally
find in task research literature. This chapter not only ends the book, but
also serves as a bookend to this collection, by arguing again that we
should not be satisfied with using only intuition as we think of what
constitutes expertise in any area of language teaching and
learning-eventually we must turn to empirical research to validate or
challenge our thinking.


For anyone engaged in language pedagogy and the study of language
acquisition, it would be hard to deny the importance of understanding what
constitutes expertise in the areas covered in this volume, and this volume
is helpful in leading us towards that goal. It provides a competent
introduction to the topic of expertise and serves as a tremendous resource
for generating ideas for further useful research in this area. Since the
topics covered here encompass language learning, language teaching, and the
continuing development of expertise in language teachers, it would be easy
to envision the use of this volume in an education program for language
teachers. In more research-oriented programs, the volume might be useful
as a starting point for considering differing methodologies for
establishing what constitutes expertise and, of course, as a beginning
review of pertinent literature in this area.

Nevertheless, the volume suffers somewhat from a flaw that may be as
appropriately assigned to the status of research thus far in this field as
to this volume in particular. When Goh writes in Chapter 3 that, 'The
causal effect of strategy use has generally been inconclusive,' it is an
observation that could as easily apply to this volume as a whole. One of
the persistent problems in this line of research is the frequently
mentioned, but still unsolved, problem of whether certain characteristics
(those which permit us to label 'experts' in an area) are the result of, or
the method for, their achievement of expertise. While it might not be
reasonable to expect a solution for this 'chicken or egg' problem, a much
fuller treatment of the problem would have strengthened the overarching
argument here that a broader application of the expertise approach will
assist us in better understanding language teaching and language learning.
The longest treatment of this question in this volume was a
single-paragraph discussion in the chapter by Steven McDonough.

Despite this continuing challenge, this set of authors present many
interesting insights into language learners, language teachers, and
conceptions and misconceptions of what expertise in these areas means. For
example, most of the papers in this volume draw a connection between
expertise and context awareness, highlighting that experts appear to be
those whose practice at any given moment is shaped by social, psychological
and environmental factors, while novice learners and teachers have control
over fewer options and therefore must apply their limited choices even in
contexts that may not serve them (or their students) well. Observing that
expertise involves working more deeply rather than working more quickly or
easily provides an insight that casual observers might not notice.

There are also a number of issues raised in this volume that do not
necessarily constitute unique discoveries, but whose assemblage here may
foster discussion about ongoing research in expertise discovery. For
example, Wallace's essay, that successfully de-links the expert language
user from the 'native' language user, may lead us to consider a number of
ways in which expertise cannot simple be equated with what native speakers
say or do with language. Likewise intriguing is the approach of the
authors here who equate expertise more with a process than with a
particular state. Tsui's essay, for example, implies a Demingesque
approach to expertise in teaching, one which would imply that no teacher
could wear the mantle of 'expert' whose syllabi, books, and pedagogical
practice do not improve from year to year.

In short, Johnson's volume is a worthwhile read and welcome addition to our
body of knowledge on language learning and teaching. The book is of
manageable size and scope and quite accessible to nonexperts in the field
of expertise. At the same time, it is interesting and useful as a solid
introduction to current research findings and succeeds in opening avenues
for potential future study.


Bereiter, C., and Scardamalia, M., 1993. Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry
into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

De Groot, A. 1978. Thought and Choice in Chess. The Hague: Mouton.

Dreyfus, H. L. and Dreyfus, S. E. 1986. Mind Over Machine: The Power of
Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. New York: The
Free Press.

Ericsson, K. A. 2002. 'Attaining Excellence Through Deliberate Practice:
Insights from the Study of Expert Performance.' In M. Ferrari (ed.), The
Pursuit of Excellence Through Education, 21-56. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ericsson, K., A. and Smith, J., (eds) 1991. Towards a General Theory of
Expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Johnson, K. 2003. Designing Language Teaching Tasks. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Naiman, N., Froelich, M and Stern, H. H. 1975. The Good Language Learner.
Modern Language Centre, Dept. of Curriculum, OISE. Canada. A report.

Rubin, J. 1975. What the 'Good Language Learner' Can Teach Us. TESOL
Quarterly 9/1: 41-51.

Stern, H. H. 1975. 'What Can We Learn From the Good Language Learner?'
Canadian Modern Language Review 31/4: 304-318.

Tsui, A. B. M. 2003. Understanding Expertise in Teaching. New York:
Cambridge UP.

Larry LaFond is an Assistant Professor of English at Southern Illinois
University Edwardsville. He completed his Ph.D in linguistics at the
University of South Carolina in 2001. His current research efforts are
focused on case morphology and syntax in second language learning and the
second language acquisition of motion events in English.

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