Nina Spada
Nina Spada

The research of Dr. Nina Spada has investigated the effects of different types of instruction on the L2 development of children and adults in second and foreign language classrooms. Dr. Spada is co-author of How Languages are Learned published by Oxford University Press. She is Past President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics.

The relationship between SLA research and language education


The relationship between second language acquisition (SLA) research and second/foreign language (L2) education is a complex one. On the one hand, there are those who claim that SLA research should be applicable to L2 pedagogy because SLA is a subfield of applied linguistics, a field dedicated to the study of real-world problems in which language plays a role. On the other hand, there are those who argue that caution must be exercised when applying SLA research to L2 instruction. This is based on the argument that the kinds of questions asked by researchers are fundamentally different from those asked by teachers, and the ways in which researchers seek answers to their questions are often far removed from everyday classroom practice. A qualification of this position is that while not all areas of SLA research are applicable to L2 pedagogy, there are certain domains that are more applied and have greater relevance for L2 pedagogy, for example, L2 classroom research and instructed SLA research.

The tensions that exist in the SLA research/L2 pedagogy relationship is a manifestation of the well-known and much debated gap between theory and practice. This is widespread not only in the field of education but also within other professional disciplines (e.g. medicine, engineering). Various suggestions have been made to address this gap. One is the call for more teacher research based on the view that this is the only type of research that is directly relevant and applicable to teaching. It has also been claimed that such research is more equitable in that it recognizes the value of teacher knowledge and experience and challenges the unidirectional and top-down model of teachers as recipients of knowledge from researchers. While questions have been raised about the scientific rigor of teacher research, this is countered by the argument that because the goals of this research are different it should be evaluated with different criteria. Another suggestion for narrowing the gap is to create conditions for more collaborative research between teachers and researchers in order to understand and address mutual interests and concerns. This also has the potential to address concerns about methodological rigor. A challenge associated with both teacher and collaborative research, however, is that the majority of teachers do not have the time or support to conduct research. This is particularly the case for teachers working within school systems. Another suggestion for reducing the SLA research/L2 pedagogy gap is to make research findings more accessible to teachers. This includes the preparation of non-technical, teacher-friendly summaries of main research findings that are organized and based on pedagogical rather than theoretical concepts. The challenge here is that most researchers are not the best communicators when it comes to making their research findings accessible to teachers. Partly in response to this is the option of using case studies and narratives of teachers and learners taking a story telling approach. Both of these strategies assume that teachers have the time and motivation to read research summaries (in whatever format) and this is not always the case.

It has been proposed that the key players in bridging the gap between SLA research and L2 pedagogy are teacher educators and classroom researchers. While it is true that both serve important mediator roles, this also suggests that classroom research is more relevant to L2 instruction than experimental research, which typically takes place outside classrooms in laboratory and quasi-laboratory settings. This is not necessarily the case and such a distinction fails to acknowledge the different contributions each can make to L2 pedagogy. It is my view that a wide range of instructed SLA research (descriptive, experimental, quasi-experimental) set in classrooms or laboratories can be relevant to L2 pedagogy.

In this presentation I will briefly describe the history and evolution of SLA research in relation to L2 pedagogy. I will discuss some of the factors that have contributed to the perceived gap between the two, efforts that have been made to reduce the gap and the challenges that are associated with them. I will argue that there are degrees of relevance and applicability of SLA research to L2 pedagogy and that this is dependent on factors such as the nature of the questions investigated, the procedures employed and the way in which the findings are interpreted. Throughout I will present examples of the types of SLA research that are most likely to inform L2 pedagogy and those that are less likely to do so. I will also submit that just as the questions that are investigated by SLA researchers need to be informed by teachers' ideas about what is important for teaching and learning, teachers’ ideas also need to be informed by an understanding of SLA theory and research.