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Review of  Fremdsprachenunterricht empirisch erforschen

Reviewer: Daniel Walter
Book Title: Fremdsprachenunterricht empirisch erforschen
Book Author: Sabine Doff
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.1438

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“Fremdsprachenunterricht empirisch erforschen” (“Empirically researching the foreign language class”) covers the basic principles, methods, and applications of current empirical research on foreign language instruction, primarily within a German context. The primary focus of this book is on the process of conducting empirical research in foreign language classes with descriptions of different methods available to answer research questions. While the concepts discussed in this book are important for researchers at all levels, the primary focus of this book is on budding researchers in the field of foreign language education. Although the concepts discussed are fairly universal to research, this text is limited to those researchers who have a strong proficiency in German. In addition, the examples used in this book are also concentrated on events pertinent to foreign language education in Germany and, to a lesser extent, Europe.

This textbook is divided into four major sections: “Grundsatzueberlegungen” (“principle considerations”), “Fokus Untersuchungsdesign” (“focus on research design”), “Fokus Datenerhebung” (“focus on data collection”), and “Fokus Datenanalyse” (“focus on data analysis”). These sections span chapters two, three, four, and five, respectively. Each of these four chapters contains at least one primary explanatory section written by one of the book's contributors, as well as a secondary section which describes the application of the material covered in an actual research project, written by another contributor.

The first chapter “‘More than methods’ -- Vier Praemissen zur empirischen Erforschung von Fremdsprachen” (“‘More than methods’ -- four premises to the empirical study of foreign languages”) outlines the editor's, Sabine Doff’s, intent with this publication. She discusses four premises she hopes will frame the purpose and structure of the book. Her first premise is that research in foreign languages is constituted by empirically supported theory as well as theoretically supported empiricism. Her second premise is that quantitative and qualitative paradigms are to be seen as two endpoints on a single spectrum and that in between there are countless forms which research can take. Her third premise is that methodology should be suited to the thing being researched. Her fourth and final premise for foreign language research is that fundamental research methods and methodology training be part of teacher education.

The second chapter, which focuses on principal considerations of foreign language research, is divided into two subsections. The first section, “Was ist erlaubt? Ethik in der Fremdsprachenforschung” (“What is allowed? Ethics in foreign language research”) by Gerhard Bach and Britta Viebrock, covers the different areas of ethics related to foreign language research. The authors emphasize that the discussion of ethics in foreign language research is often a “peripheral phenomenon,” and that a closer look at how ethics plays an integral part in all studies is necessary for all researchers in the field of foreign language education. The authors promote taking both macro- and micro-level looks at ethical concerns. While this chapter primarily overviews the state of research ethics in Germany, the authors recognize that the majority of research ethics in foreign language education stems from English-speaking areas, specifically citing Mackey and Gass (2005), McKay (2006), and Doernyei (2007).
The second subsection of chapter two, “Was ist gute empirische Unterrichtsforschung? Ein Plaedoyer fuer die vergessene reflexive Qualitaet von Wissenschaft” (“What is good empirical class research? A plea for the forgotten reflexive quality of science”) by Daniel Troehler, highlights the development of empirical research over a historical context which includes reflections on how research into classrooms has changed and advanced over the last century. The author’s main point is that only through reflection on others’ and our own previous research and ideas can we continue to develop foreign language classroom research.

The third chapter “Fokus Untersuchungsdesign”, focuses on two major topics, experimental and historical foreign language research. The first subsection, “Experimentelle Fremdsprachenforschung” (“experimental foreign language research”) by Nicole Marx, encompasses the basic parts of experimental design and how it pertains to foreign language research, such as deciding on research question, operationalizing and identifying differing variable, and creating a research design to answer the questions posed. The secondary text to this section, “Anwendungsbeitrag: Latein und English -- eine empirische Studie zur Kognatenerkennung” (“Application example: Latin and English -- an empirical study on cognate recognition”) by Katrin Siebel and Nicole Marx, describes the preliminary steps in designing a study which looks at how Latin and English knowledge can enhance students recognition of new words in each language.
The second subsection of chapter three, “Historische Fremdsprachenforschung” (“Historical foreign language research”) by Sabine Doff and Tim Giesler, describes the historical nature of foreign language research and how investigating planning and policy change over time can lead to helpful insights into current research. This section includes information on how to find and critically evaluate historical sources. The complementary section, “Anwendungsbeitrag: Historische Forschung am Beispiel des English-Unterrichts fuer Kaufleute im 19. Jahrhundert“ (“Application example: Historical research from the example of English classes for sales persons in the 19th century”) by Tim Giesler, details the manner in which this study uses historical texts to interpret changes in English education over a specific period of time.

The fourth chapter, “Fokus Datenerhebung,” focuses on different methods of data collection, including surveys, tests, thinks aloud and stimulated recall protocols, and qualitative interviews. The first section, “Fragebogenkonstruktion im Kontext des schulischen Fremdsprachenlerners” (“Survey construction in the context of school foreign language learning”) by Wolfgang Zydatiss, discusses the construction and uses of surveys in their varying forms, from more quantitative, scalar versions to more qualitative, open ones, and draws on sources such as Oxford (1990). The discussion also covers statistical procedures, such as Cronbach’s Alpha, that are important to test the reliability and validity of surveys. The adjoining secondary text, “Anwendungsbeitrag: Fragebogenentwicklung und -pilotierung im Rahmen des Dissertationsprojekts ‘Bilinguale Module im Mathematikunterricht’” (“Application example: survey development and piloting in the frame of the dissertation project ‘Bilingual module in math class’”) by Katharina Pfuefer, outlines the way in which a particular survey is constructed from beginning to end, including the creation of items, the piloting of the test, and the mathematical procedures needed to identify problems with the survey.
The second section of chapter four, “Tests als Untersuchungsgegenstand und Forschungsinstrument in der Fremdsprachenforschung” (“Tests as items of investigation and research instruments in foreign language research”) by Claudia Harsch, looks at how language tests are developed and implemented to determine students’ abilities as well as used as tools for empirical research. The secondary text, “Anwendungsbeitrag: (Sprach-)Tests in der Praxis: Die Studie ‘Development of North Rhine-Westphalian CLIL Students’ (DENOCS)” (“Application example: (Language-)Tests in practice: The study ‘Development of North Rhine-Westphalian CLIL Students’ (DENOCS)”) by Dominik Rumlich, provides the explicit example of the development, refinement, and implementation of a specific language test over the course of time.
The third section of chapter four, “Datenerhebung durch Lautes Denken und Lautes Erinnern in der fremdsprachendidaktischen Empirie” (“Data collection through think aloud and remember aloud in foreign language didactic empiricism) by Dianna Feick, covers what English researchers would call think-aloud and stimulated-recall protocols for data collection (see Gass and Mackey, 2000). The authors provide a clear summary for different uses of each, as well as the different means of collecting this type of data, i.e. audio recording, video recording. In addition, they show the connection between think-alouds and stimulated-recalls; namely, the raw data in think-alouds can be used as a basis for stimulated-recall procedures. The secondary text provided by the same author, “Anwendungsbeitrag: Videobasiertes Lautes Erinnern als Instrument zur Untersuchung fremdsprachlicher Gruppenaushandlungsprozesse” (“Application example: Video based stimulated-recall as an instrument of study of foreign language group interaction processes”), exemplifies her preference for video recorded data and the connection between think-aloud and stimulated-recall protocols, with particular emphasis on researcher-participant interaction before and during this type of data collection.
The fourth and final section of chapter four, “Fuehren und Auswerten qualitativer Interviews” (“Conducting and assessing qualitative interviews”) by Matthias Trautmann, divides qualitative interviews into three main subcomponents: Planning, execution, and analysis. First, the planning of qualitative interviews encompasses recruitment of interviewees, considerations of where and how the interview should be conducted, how the interview will be documented, and ethical aspects, including the protection of interviewees’ identities. The execution of the interview should incorporate a “pre-interview” informal interaction to promote an open and friendly atmosphere, introductory questions, active listening on the part of the researcher, appropriate questions, and concluding/summarizing questions at the end. In terms of analysis, the author provides three main examples: biographical (or narrative) analysis, documentation analysis, and qualitative content analysis. Along with this overview, the author also places interviews in a foreign language context and discusses which languages one can and should use (first language, target language) to conduct interviews with speakers and learners of foreign languages. The secondary text, “Anwendungsbeitrag: Experteninterviews in der Fremdsprachenforschung: Anwendungsspezifische Planung, Durchfuehrung und Auswertung” (“Application example: Expert interviews in foreign language research: Application specific planning, execution, and assessment”) by Annina Lenz provides insights into a specific type of interview, the expert interview (see Meuser and Nagel, 2009).

The fifth chapter, “Fokus Datenanalyse,” contains two sections. The first section, “Statistische Verfahren” (“Statistical Procedures”) by Julia Settinieri, describes basic descriptive and inferential statistical procedures of data analysis. While a full treatment of statistics in the social sciences is not possible, the author does a proficient job of describing the basic thinking behind and application of the very basics. Additionally, she also mentions, with brief definitions, more advances statistical procedures, such as linear regression and multivariate analysis of variance, in order to at least introduce these terms to her audience. The secondary text, “Anwendungsbeitrag: Anwendungsbeispiele statistischer Verfahren zur Analyse von Lernersprachdaten” (“Application example: Application examples of statistical procedures in the analysis of learner language data”) by Urska Grum, provides an example of basic descriptive statistics as well as a t-test and Spearman correlation.
The second section of chapter five, “Von der Rekonstruktion zur Integration: Wissenssoziologie und dokumentarische Methode in der Fremdsprachenforschung” (“From reconstruction to integration: The sociology of knowledge and documentary method in foreign language research”), provides a qualitative method of analysis. This section is concerned with the documentary method and its uses as a lens into historical and current practices in foreign language education. While this method is only one of many possible methods in qualitative analyses, the authors do show the reflexive and iterative process that is a core part of qualitative research. The secondary text, ''Anwendungsbeitrag: Die dokumentarische Methode als Instrument zur Analyse von literarischer Anschlusskommunikation” (“Application example: The documentary method as an instrument for analysis of literary understanding between interlocutors”) by Elisabeth Bracker, analyzes a group discussion. This type of documentary method is reminiscent of work in fields such as conversation analysis and discourse analysis.

The sixth and final chapter provides biographical data on all of the contributors to this book.


Overall, this book provides interesting foothold for novice researchers into empirical studies in foreign language learning. The secondary texts are useful as tools to look at the processes and steps involved in different research methodologies, but they do not provide readers with examples of what final research products should look like. In addition, the broad nature of the book allows researchers some insight into a number of available methodologies, but this does not always mean that all of the presented methodologies can always be applied without further studies. More specifically, the quantitative methods introduced require a solid background in statistical procedures before one can conduct the proposed research, so this book is not necessarily an immediate entrance into conducting one’s own research. The same can said in terms of the qualitative methods proposed. While there is a detailed overview of what this kind of research entails, the practical implementation of the qualitative methods posed here require more finesse and analysis than is presented here. Despite these shortcomings, this book does an excellent job of introducing graduate level students to the nuanced nature of research by providing a straightforward overview, listing areas of further inquiry, and giving descriptions of different steps throughout an empirical study. As an introductory research methods books, it also emphasizes, to some degree, the often overlooked or assumed ethical considerations. All in all, “Fremdsprachenunterricht empirisch erforschen” delivers a well-rounded introduction to methods and methodology in foreign language and educational research and a platform from which students can build a more in-depth understanding of how to conduct research.


Gass, S. and Mackey, A. (2000). Stimulated Recall Methodology in Second Language Research. Mahwah, NJ. Erlbaum Associates.

Doernyei, Z. (2007). Research Methods in Applied Linguistics: Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Methodologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackey, A. and Gass, S. (2005). Second Language Research: Methodology and Design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

McKay, S. (2006). Researching Second Language Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Meuser, M. and Nagel, U. (2009). Das Experteninterview -- konzeptionelle Grundlagen und methodische Anlage. ('The expert interview -- conceptual premises and methodological design'). In Pickel, S., Jahn, D., Lauth, H.-J., and Pickel, G. (Eds.), Methoden der vergleichenden Politik- und Sozialwissenschaft (pp. 465-479). Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. Boston, Mass.: Heinle and Heinle.
Daniel Walter is currently a Ph.D. student in Second Language Acquisition in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches Reading and Writing for an Academic Context, as well as Elementary German 1. His research interests include second language acquisition (SLA), with a focus on second language morphosyntax, second language grammatical gender, and German as a second/foreign language