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Review of  Research Methods in Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Pamela Mary Wesely
Book Title: Research Methods in Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Alison Mackey Susan M. Gass
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.2388

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EDITORS: Mackey, Alison and Gass, Susan M.
TITLE: Research Methods in Second Language Acquisition
SUBTITLE: A Practical Guide
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2011

Pamela M. Wesely, Foreign Language and ESL Education, Department of Teaching and
Learning, University of Iowa

Following on their 2005 book, ''Second Language Research: Methodology and
Design'', this edited volume by Mackey and Gass offers an updated perspective on
the approaches to research in second language acquisition (SLA). Importantly,
this volume is intended “as a guide for students as they design research
projects,” as a collection of chapters that give what the authors call “basic
background” (p. 1). As such, the volume as a whole seeks to characterize
current SLA research and to offer concrete suggestions as to how to follow
widely-accepted procedures for research.

The short introductory chapter establishes the general goals of the volume and
gives an overview of each subsequent chapter. The chapters in the volume are
organized into two different parts: Part 1, Data Types (consisting of nine
chapters); and Part 2, Data Coding, Analysis, and Replication (consisting of
five chapters).

The introduction also describes the five different elements present in each
chapter: (1) the basic background to the area of research; (2) a “how-to”
section consisting of a practical, step-by-step guide to the method it covers,
often with a reference to actual studies; (3) project ideas and resources,
including actual readings; (4) brief summaries of studies that reflect the area
of research, presented in shaded “Study Boxes” that contain subsections like
Background, Research Questions, Method, and Results or similar; (5) study

Chapter 2, “How to Use Foreign and Second Language Learner Corpora,” by Sylviane
Granger, offers a precise definition of learner corpus research (LCR), depicting
it as currently shifting from an orientation in corpus linguistics to one more
in SLA research, and focused on computerized databases of written or spoken
texts. The chapter reviews the main stages in LCR, also taking into
consideration the challenges of that type of research. Four sample studies are
summarized. The project idea section lists multiple online resources, and the
study questions focus on definitional understanding.

Tanya Ionin, in Chapter 3, “Formal Theory-Based Methodologies,” focuses on
grammatical acceptability judgment tasks and truth-value judgment tasks (with
related picture-matching tasks). Five sample studies utilizing these tasks and
addressing formal theory are provided. The author offers a thoughtful sequence
for designing and implementing such tasks in the framework of a study.
Additionally, she provides print resources and study questions focusing on
research design issues.

Chapter 4, “Instructed Second Language Acquisition,” by Shawn Loewen and Jenefer
Philp, tackles a broad topic of study in SLA. Limiting themselves to addressing
research on general L2 classroom instruction, they focus on three substantively
different research methods: observations, non-interventionist quasi-experiments,
and interventionist quasi-experiments. Action research is mentioned but not
described procedurally as are the other three. The “how-to” for each of the
three methods focuses on the selection of a topic (research question), setting,
and instruments, and continues through coding. Seven sample studies are
summarized, and the authors provide a short list of published resources and
study questions that focus on the theoretical as well as the practical aspects
of this topic.

The foremost expert on individual differences in SLA today, Zoltán Dörnyei,
works with Kata Csizér to address “How to Design and Analyze Surveys in Second
Language Acquisition Research” in Chapter 5. Focusing on survey research in
“characteristics, opinions, attitudes, and intended behaviors” of a group (p.
74), they offer a brief background of the topic, and then a substantial overview
of the processes of creating a questionnaire, sampling, administering,
analyzing, and reporting the survey results. One sample study is provided. The
authors, in the “Project Ideas and Resources” section, provide one entire
questionnaire as well as some additional print references; the study questions
subsequently ask the reader to reflect on the provided questionnaire as well as
additional application-oriented topics.

Patricia A. Duff focuses on qualitative case studies of individual learners in
Chapter 6, “How to Carry Out Case Study Research.” Starting with a background
section that acknowledges the difficulty in identifying case studies as just
another data type (the author also calls it “a type of research design and
written report that highlights cases,” [p. 95]) Duff spends some time situating
case studies historically within SLA research. An understandable set of steps
for conducting case study research, from identifying a conceptual framework to
defending the case study report, follows. The project ideas and resources
provide additional information about the topic. Three study examples are
provided, as well as a set of complex and interesting study questions.

Chapter 7, “How to Use Psycholinguistic Methodologies for Comprehension and
Production,” by Kim McDonough and Pavel Trofimovich, addresses four types of
tasks in characterizing this area of SLA research: self-paced reading tasks,
self-paced listening tasks, picture-word interference tasks, and sentence
preamble tasks. In all four tasks, the authors describe the task, suggest
theoretical frameworks, and offer methodological considerations. Four example
studies are offered, one for each type of task described. A short list of
further readings and definitional and application-oriented study questions are

In the eighth chapter, “How to Research Second Language Writing,” Charlene Polio
takes on a considerably broad topic in SLA research. The author summarizes
twelve examples of studies on L2 writing that use different research methods in
a table. She then discusses each in turn, grouping some together as either
analysis of writers’ texts or analysis of the writing process. She offers a
brief and open-ended review of the steps of conducting an experimental writing
study. Three example studies are described, and although study questions do not
appear in this chapter, a substantial set of project ideas and resources are

As with the previous chapter, Chapter 9, “How to Do Research on Second Language
Reading,” by Keiko Koda, addresses a vast topic in SLA research. Koda tackles
the topic somewhat differently from Polio, explicitly adopting one view of
reading, as a “psycholinguistic process involved in reconstructing the message
intended by the author based on visually encoded information” (p. 158). In
narrowing her focus to one particular theoretical and methodological
orientation, she then represents the basic background in some detail, followed
by sections about hypothesis formulation, empirical testing, data construction
and implementation, and pedagogical interpretations. The author contextualizes
all of her explanations of the research process in current studies in the field.
Four studies are offered as specific examples; selected further readings, and
some detailed study questions are provided as well.

Debra A. Friedman’s Chapter 10, on “How to Collect and Analyze Qualitative
Data,” focuses on ethnography and conversation analysis in SLA research, which
she identifies as two of the three qualitative research traditions that are
widely accepted in applied linguistics (other than case studies, addressed in
Chapter 6). The author provides a very readable summary of background
information about both traditions, followed by a summary of the process for
conducting each type of study, including suggestions for conducting data
analysis. Two studies are summarized as examples, and substantial and helpful
project ideas and study questions round out the chapter.

Part II focuses more precisely on Data Coding, Analysis, and Replication.

Chapter 11, “Coding Second Language Data Validly and Reliably,” by Andrea
Révész, narrows the focus from the overall design of a study to one specific
stage of the research process. The emphasis here is on “top-down, theory- and
instrument-driven coding methods” (p. 203). In her explanation, the author
advises the reader on important issues related to validity and reliability in
coding at all points, shifting from selecting and preparing data, to the coding
itself (including coder selection and reliability), to the reporting of coding
procedures. Two model studies are reviewed. A short set of provocative study
questions and project ideas are included at the end.

A counterpart to Chapter 11 is provided in the twelfth chapter, entitled “Coding
Qualitative Data,” and written by Melissa Baralt. The chapter exclusively
examines computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS),
independent of theory-building and other aspects of qualitative research
methodology. With the aid of screenshots and other visuals, the author reviews
the process of programming and evaluating the results from using NVivo, stopping
at the point of the process where the results are presented to another audience.
Three studies that used NVivo are presented as examples, and a short list of
resources and study questions are provided.

Jenifer Larson-Hall offers an overview of another stage of the research process
in SLA in Chapter 13, “How to Run Statistical Analyses.” As she acknowledges,
the chapter is “of necessity a brief survey,” (p. 245), where she focuses on
what she identifies as the most basic types of inferential statistical tests in
SLA: one-way ANOVA, correlation, the chi-square test, and the t-test. After a
short background section, Larson-Hall proceeds through the tests, providing an
explanation of when it is used and how to conduct it, followed by sections on
its results, effect sizes, reporting, and graphics. Three sample studies are
provided, as are multiple useful links to websites, and several study questions.

In Chapter 14, “How to do a Meta-Analysis,” Luke Plonsky and Frederick L. Oswald
give a strong overview of meta-analysis in SLA research. They review the
specific actions required to craft careful and precise calculations, also while
addressing the theory and content knowledge needed in designing a meta-analysis.
The authors offer guidance in interpreting results, and include two sample
studies, including one by Plonsky. Their lengthy list of study questions is
remarkable in its depth and breadth, as is their very logically labeled list of

The final chapter of the text, Chapter 15, “Why, When, and How to Replicate
Research,” was written by Rebecka Abbuhl. She provides a basic background that
offers the reader examples of different types of replications, including
literal/exact replications, approximate/partial replications, and conceptual
replications. In the framework of a five-step procedure for conducting
replications, the author smartly plots out the pitfalls as well as the
advantages to this type of research. She concludes with some intriguing ideas
for other projects, as well as important study questions.

This volume has numerous strengths. It achieves what a single-authored (or
double-authored) text on research in SLA can never do: it provides a variety of
perspectives that truly reflect the diverse and multifaceted research base of
SLA. The individual authors are well-known researchers in their areas, and
their advice for their readers, ostensibly novice scholars, is always precise
and accurate, and sometimes remarkably insightful. There were many, many
moments as I read this book when I wished I had had access to it earlier in my

Indeed, the editors underestimate the diverse uses for this book. Beyond the
volume’s potential as an introduction to research methods in SLA, this book can
serve as an important reference volume for any researcher in SLA. Researchers
at every stage must craft rationales for and explanations of their research
methods, and this volume contains many chapters that could buttress these
rationales quite well.

This leads to a consideration of the book’s depth and breadth. The depth is
represented by how well each chapter meets the goal of “providing a practical,
step-by-step guide to the method it covers” (p. 1). Many chapters, as indicated
above, do just that, by offering specific steps and guidelines, as well as
warnings about pitfalls, in the method of interest. Some topics are so vast,
however, that this “step-by-step” goal is simply not attainable. Some authors
resolve this problem by narrowing the definition of the topic. Two notable
instances of this are Koda’s focus on reading as a psycholinguistic process in
Chapter 9, and Baralt’s emphasis in Chapter 12 on using NVivo only for
qualitative coding. In these cases and others, it can be made more explicit,
either through the title or through a more extensive acknowledgement of other
perspectives, that the authors are selecting one perspective rather than giving
a definitive overview of the topic. Other authors resolve the issue of having a
very broad topic area by attempting to address the major sub-categories of the
topic each in turn. This includes Loewen and Philp’s Chapter 4 that addresses
four types of research on instructed second language acquisition, Polio’s
Chapter 8 examining twelve different ways to research second language writing,
and Chapter 13 by Larson-Hall, which covers four different common statistical
tests. Although this prevents the chapter authors from meeting the editors’
stated goals, it is a reasonable solution to a difficult challenge.

Beyond these considerations, I commend the editors for getting a diverse set of
14 different authors to conform to one template for writing about a given topic.
Some authors excel in some specific sections. For instance, some (like Dörnyei
and Csizér in Chapter 5, and Duff in Chapter 6) offer truly insightful
descriptions of the analysis and reporting stages, while others only address
that stage briefly. Other authors give comprehensive and wide-ranging lists of
well-organized project ideas, resources, and study questions (notably, Plonsky
and Oswald in Chapter 14), where others only offer a few definitional study
questions and a short list of resources.

An individual’s preferences for what should be included in this volume will
vary; I myself would have appreciated a chapter specifically on how to conduct
research on individual differences (e.g. Dörnyei, 2005, 2006) and pragmatics and
interlanguage (e.g. Bardovi-Harlig, 2006; Kasper & Rose, 1999). More notable
omissions are chapters addressing manual qualitative coding (e.g. Miles &
Huberman 2005) and mixed methods research (e.g. Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011;
Dörnyei, 2007; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009).

Finally, in regard to the volume’s breadth, the editors deserve praise for
striking a satisfactory balance between qualitative and quantitative approaches
to SLA research. As such, the volume might have benefited from either a more
substantial introductory chapter or a conclusion chapter. There, the editors
could have offered a more comprehensive overview of the approaches to research
that have traditionally been associated with SLA research, beyond a simple
mention in the first sentence of the introduction. For instance, in the table
of contents and as chapter topics, the following are all presented as “data
types,” among others: learner corpora, instructed second language acquisition,
case studies, qualitative data, and second language writing. An overview might
have helped guide the reader to a better understanding of how these areas
interrelate and overlap.

This volume ultimately deserves strong praise for its wide-ranging
representation of current topics and procedures in SLA research. Although
intended for students, it guides all scholars to a better understanding of how
we study our field and is an important addition to the library of all SLA
researchers, novice or seasoned.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. 2006. Interlanguage development: Main routes and individual
paths. AILA Review 19. 69-82.

Creswell, J.W. & Plano Clark, V.L. 2011. Designing and conducting mixed methods
research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences
in second language acquisition. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2006. Individual differences in second language acquisition. AILA
Review 19. 42-68.

Dörnyei, Z. 2007. Research methods in applied linguistics: quantitative,
qualitative and mixed methodologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kasper, G. & Rose, K.R.R. 1999. Pragmatics and SLA. Annual Review of Applied
Linguistics 19. 81-104.

Mackey, A., & Gass, S.M. 2005. Second language research: Methodology and design.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Miles, M.B., & Huberman, A.M. 1994. Qualitative data analysis: An expanded
sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Teddlie, C. & Tashakkori, A. 2009. Foundations of mixed methods research:
Integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches in the social and behavioral
sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Pamela M. Wesely, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Foreign Language and English as a Second Language (ESL) Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education at the University of Iowa, and an affiliate faculty member of the SLA interdisciplinary doctoral program. Her current research interests focus on foreign language and ESL in the K-12 traditional and immersion/bilingual settings, and include L2 learner, teacher, and parent beliefs and attitudes, the instruction and learning of culture and intercultural competence, and the use of social media in the L2 classroom. She specializes in mixed methods research methodology.

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