LINGUIST List 32.2985

Mon Sep 20 2021

Review: Applied Linguistics: Mackey (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 16-May-2021
From: Caroline Hutchinson <>
Subject: Interaction, Feedback and Task Research in Second Language Learning
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Alison Mackey
TITLE: Interaction, Feedback and Task Research in Second Language Learning
SUBTITLE: Methods and Design
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Caroline Hutchinson, Nihon University 日本大学


“Interaction, Feedback and Task Research in Second Language Learning”, by Alison Mackey, aims to give practical advice for those seeking to carry out research into the three related topics of the title, while deepening the reader’s understanding of existing studies through discussion of their research methods. After reviewing the theoretical background in which such research is situated, Mackey turns to the practical process of designing research. From chapters 3 to 9, different research areas and methodologies are considered in relation to interaction research. The final chapter summarizes potential pitfalls and suggests ways to avoid them, providing a number of anecdotes that many researchers will find relatable.

Accessibility is clearly a concern of the author, and the book has a number of boxed texts summarizing main ideas (called “Keep It in Mind!”), providing resources for practical application (“Try It!”), and numerous abstracts from relevant studies (“Read It!). There are also visual examples illustrating concepts such as mixed-methods research designs, meta-analysis, and aptitude tests, giving the book the feel of an introductory volume that aims to empower and inspire readers to seek deeper knowledge through research, discussion, or further reading.

Chapter 1 introduces the book’s theoretical paradigm, the notion that a second language can be learned through interaction with others, including processes such as input, output, and corrective feedback. In the second language classroom, it is common to bring these processes together in communicative tasks, and thus it is possible to consider these three research areas as distinct yet overlapping. The author situates the book within the cognitive-interactionist paradigm associated particularly with Long’s (1981) interaction hypothesis, while also summarizing the interest of sociocultural theorists in participation as a driver of development, in language learning as in other areas of life.

The chapter then introduces the history and current state of research in each of its three focus areas, providing recommendations of foundational articles, sample abstracts, and suggestions for research areas that are currently understudied. Thought-provoking examples of these future directions include longer-term longitudinal studies of L2 development, studies of non-traditional learners, individual differences in receptivity to corrective feedback, and the effects of tasks on different aspects of language development (such as fluency, accuracy, and complexity).

Chapter 2 provides an overview of how to design research. It begins by summarizing different research paradigms—quantitative, qualitative, interpretive or co-constructed, descriptive, and mixed methods—and explaining how they differ. It also introduces synthetic approaches, or meta-analytic research, in which researchers analyze existing literature with the aim of drawing larger conclusions. These methods are summarized in a handy table along with examples of possible research areas, and three abstracts are included to illustrate what these different approaches look like in practice.

The chapter then moves on to formulating research questions, reminding the reader that while quantitative studies are typically guided closely by narrowly-focussed research questions, themes and research questions for qualitative studies may emerge as data are collected. Mackey outlines how to look for gaps in existing research, suggesting avenues such as longitudinal research, contacting authors who call for further research in their conclusions, and replicating existing studies. She also advocates for greater sharing of instruments and resources, introducing several resources for doing so.

Chapter 3 covers individual differences. Relevant language aptitude tests and working memory tests are introduced, along with what they aim to measure, and there is a summary of discussions of how predictive of language learning success these measures may be. Mackey then turns to the newer area of cognitive creativity, relating findings of two as yet unpublished studies which appear to show positive correlations between creativity and success in L2 interaction.

Chapter 4 turns from cognitive processes to how introspective research can be carried out into learners’ own perceptions of their internal mental processes. These methods included stimulated recalls, think-aloud protocols, interviews, discourse completion, and self-reports such as journals or blogs. These ask participants to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings, either while doing a task or after they have finished. Although it is important to keep in mind issues such as the relationship between interviewer and interviewee, memory delay, and the difficulty of articulating internal processes when the recall is done in the L2, Mackey stresses that these methods can be used to supplement observational data.

In Chapter 5, Mackey considers surveys, interviews, and mixed methods research. Questionnaires give researchers an insight into students’ internal processes while also collecting biographical data that can help identify inappropriate participants. They are also easily administered, distributed, and analyzed, and they lend themselves to repeated or longitudinal data collection. The chapter also reviews the practicalities of designing surveys, including length, question type, and the benefits of using students’ L1, providing a handy checklist.

Chapter 6 covers meta-analytic research, which involves using the findings of previous studies to answer research questions. Research syntheses are descriptive in nature, they are more in-depth versions of a literature review. Meta-analyses attempt to synthesize previous studies quantitatively, using calculations (such as effect size, which measures the strength of the relationship between variables) to avoid problems caused by small sample size or inappropriate testing methodologies. Mackey offers suggestions for how best to define research domain and variables, and suggests that researchers could cast their nets beyond commonly-used databases to look at conference papers and PhD dissertations.

In Chapter 7, the book turns to research carried out in instructional settings, including classroom observations, action research, uptake sheets, and journals. Mackey highlights the tension between the desire for objectivity and the need to acknowledge issues of subjectivity and rapport: an unknown observer may struggle to get students to open up, while a researcher who is too close may elicit biased responses. She also touches on practical considerations such as recording classes and obtaining informed consent.

Chapter 8 considers areas of collaboration with neuroscientists, such as eye-tracking, brain imaging, and ultrasound. These newer methods allow researchers to observe physical processes that may shed light on the learning process; for example, pupil size may be a measure of cognitive effort, while ultrasound can give us more insight into tongue articulation. Imaging techniques such as electroencephalograms and fMRI track responses to stimuli, although Mackey cautions that these are expensive, and researchers are still building their understanding of how to interpret the results. More accessible psycholinguistic measures, such as reaction times and word association, can also help researchers better understand learners’ linguistic processes.

In chapter 9, Mackey describes some of the issues related to analyzing data once they have been collected. In particular, she focuses on how to code data, providing a number of abstracts from published research, and describes how coding may emerge from data in the case of qualitative research. The chapter also considers ways of measuring inter-rater reliability, providing example descriptors from published research. Finally, Mackey discusses validity, or the extent to which research actually measures what it sets out to measure. She describes ways in which internal validity may be affected by individual differences such as participants’ varying typing speeds, and how a study’s generalizability may be affected by the specifics of the context and participants.

The final chapter summarizes some common problems and issues to avoid when researching interaction, feedback, and tasks. Issues discussed include technical and logistical surprises, ensuring that students understand consent forms, and the need for adequate pilot testing. Mackey illustrates the pitfalls with humorous personal anecdotes, such as the creative child who chose to embellish a fairly standard picture description with parrots and flying teddy bears. The intention is to encourage and entertain, and Mackey emphasizes that difficulties can always be overcome.


“Interaction, Feedback and Task Research in Second Language Learning” provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to research in three closely related areas of applied linguistics. Key research and analysis tools are explained clearly, with practical advice as to how to design studies and implement them. Mackey also identifies a wide range of open research areas, aiming to stimulate further enquiry. By providing an overview which links interaction, feedback, and tasks in the paradigm of cognitive-interactionism, the book also provides readers with a way to better understand the connections between these fields of research.

The book’s blurb states that its aim is to make research in the field “accessible to novice and experienced researchers alike”. In general, Mackey leans more towards accessibility, and the boxed summary and discussion texts suggest that the book could be used in teacher education. More experienced researchers may gain insights from chapters relating to less familiar research areas but are likely to find the chapters on their specialist areas to be less thought-provoking.

There is also some inconsistency in the level at which information is pitched. On the one hand, the book provides a number of cartoons, screenshots of survey questions, and abstracts of relevant published research. On the other hand, concepts such as null hypothesis significance testing or Cresswell et al.’s (2008) patterns of mixed methods research design are mentioned but not fully elaborated. References are provided, but if the book is indeed aimed at novice researchers, who may not have institutional subscriptions to research databases, these areas may merit more attention in the text.

Nevertheless, these are minor issues when considering the scope of this book, which succeeds in bringing together fundamental aspects of research design, theory, and practice in one accessible volume.


Cresswell, J. W., Plano Clark, V. L., & Garrett, A. L. (2008). Methodological issues in conducting mixed methods research designs. In M. Bergman (Ed.), “Advances in Mixed Methods Research” (pp. 66-84). Sage Publishing.


Caroline Hutchinson is an associate professor at Nihon University College of Economics, Japan, and has worked in Japanese higher education since 2012. She has also taught in Vietnam, Hungary and the UK, where she is originally from. She developed an interest in Task-Based Learning while studying for the Cambridge DELTA. Other research interests include CLIL, EMI, autonomy, motivation, and the psychology of language learning.

Page Updated: 20-Sep-2021