This Week In Language Education: May 5, 2017

Winners of the Week: Books and Reading

A new Dutch study published in Scientific Studies of Reading provides more support for the notion that access to books promotes reading, and reading improves comprehension.

The researchers examined relationship between the home literacy environment, a child’s print exposure (amount of reading), and reading comprehension. “Home literacy environment” was a combined measure consisting of the amount of reading the parent did, the number of books the parent owned, and the number of children’s books in the home. Print exposure was also measured for the students, using a “book cover recognition test,” where the students were asked if they had read or recognized the titles of several popular children’s books. Reading comprehension was measured via a standardized measure.

Consistent with other evidence, the more parental reading and book access in the home, the more the child read, and the more the child read, the higher his reading scores.

SES was controlled for in the study, although at a school level rather than an individual one. I’m not sure why the researchers chose to do this, since while certainly children in poor neighborhoods typically suffer from lack of access to books at school as well as in the home, the authors had gathered data on each parent. A control at both levels would have strengthened their findings.

Boerma, I. E., Mol, S. E., & Jolles, J. (2017). The Role of Home Literacy Environment, Mentalizing, Expressive Verbal Ability, and Print Exposure in Third and Fourth Graders’ Reading Comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(3), 179-193.

Loser of the Week: Error Correction in Writing

Dlaska and Krekeler looked at a group of students preparing to enter a German university (N=225) who were taking a German as a Second Language course. The study examined (1) whether giving students a grade on a writing assignment would make a difference in the way they responded to “corrective feedback” (CF) (error correction) and (2) whether CF made any difference on the grammatical accuracy of student writing. Not surprisingly, the answers were “no” and “no.”

Three groups wrote a series of three in-class essays, one per week. Two of the groups got CF on certain target structures appearing in their first essay; one group did not. In addition, one of the CF groups was also graded on the assignment. The following week, students revised their essays. Those who got CF did show significant improvements in accuracy, but getting a grade made no difference. Those who did not get CF made no gains in accuracy. This is not too surprising, given the CF groups were revising essays with the errors already pointed out to them, and the students were clearly focused on form.

The important results came in the third week, when all three groups were asked to write a new essay on a new topic. The researchers found no difference in accuracy among the three groups, regardless of grading or CF. This is consistent with what Truscott and others have found: written error correction is mostly a waste of time for both teachers and students.

Dlaska, A., & Krekeler, C. (2017). Does grading undermine feedback? The influence of grades on the effectiveness of corrective feedback on L2 writing. The Language Learning Journal, 45(2), 185-201.

Predicting the Native Language of ESL Readers from Eye Movements

Three MIT researchers claimed to have identified differences in the eye movements of ESL readers based on the reader’s native language. But rather bizarrely, they used the listening and grammar portions of the Michigan English Test, a 50-question, multiple-choice instrument, to find L2 readers of equal proficiency. The assumption that L2 acquirers with equivalent formal grammar knowledge and listening abilities have equal reading proficiency is unwarranted.

The obvious choice here would have been to look at their subjects’ reading comprehension scores, vocabulary levels, and/or amount of print exposure to make sure they were comparing readers of equal proficiency in English.

Like most eye movement studies, the experimental conditions were odd and unnatural: subjects read unconnected sentences on a computer screen, were asked comprehension questions after each sentence, and “the sentences and the questions were triggered by a 300ms gaze on a fixation target (fixation circle for sentences and the letter “Q” for questions) which appeared on a blank screen and was co-located with the beginning of the text in the following screen” (p. 3). You know, just like you do all your reading.

Berzak, Y., Nakamura, C., Flynn, S., Katz, B. (2017). Predicting native language from gaze. eprint arXiv:1704.07398

An “A” for Effort May Mean an “F” on the Reading Test

Researchers studied reading attributions of success among African American and Latino readers in English, ages 8 to 15. Good readers tend to attribute their success to ability rather than effort, say the authors. But the effects were very small, with correlations under .2 for most everything (statistically significant only due to a rather large sample size of 1,000+).

The study used a relatively new (at least to me) type of analysis called “quantile regression,” in which results are compared within a group by percentile. I just saw another study with a similar approach for a separate topic, so I guess it’s now a thing.

Frijters, J. C., Tsujimoto, K. C., Boada, R., Gottwald, S., Hill, D., Jacobson, L. A., Lovett, M., Mahone, E.M., Willcutt, E., Wolf, M., Bosson-Heenan, J., & Gruen, J. (2017). Reading-Related Causal Attributions for Success and Failure: Dynamic Links With Reading Skill. Reading Research Quarterly.

Does Reading Mark You Smart, or Do Smart People Read Well? 

A meta-analysis of studies on “executive function” and reading comprehension found that there was a “moderate” association between the two. But as is typical with these kinds of research reviews, the studies are all correlational and thus cannot tell us if one thing causes the other.

The author does note that the few experimental studies on the question found that “[a]lthough several . . . demonstrated gains in executive functions, as measured by improvements on executive function tasks, there was limited overall support for the notion that improvements in executive functions caused gains in achievement or academic skills.” Perhaps they just need to turn the vagus nerve stimulation dial up to 11?

An alternative hypothesis is that reading makes you smarter (see Mol & Bus, 2011 and Stanovich & Cunningham, 1991, but also Payne et al. 2012).

Follmer, D. J. (2017). Executive Function and Reading Comprehension: A Meta-Analytic Review. Educational Psychologist, 1-19.

Bible Translators and Language Preservation

Here’s a short article on a woman who helped translate the Bible into a dialect of Mixtec, an indigenous language of southern Mexico. Missionaries are not infrequently the first linguists who tackle the issue of creating or standardizing a written form of a language (a popular form of written Hmong is an example), although some scholars are not amused.

Quick Takes:

  • Our Voice Will Go On – The CBC reports on a company that is working on cloning a person’s voice to be able to produce any utterance to sound just like you.
  • Bringing Languages Back from Extinction – Long read on Quartz on efforts to revive Cornish. It was once said that Cornish’s last native speaker died in 1777, but news of its demise appear to have been premature. Social media and pop songs are helping revive it, says the author, but nowhere mentioned in article: books that acquirers can read for pleasure. This tends the Achilles’ heel of most language maintenance and revitalization efforts.
  • Boutique Language Classes for the Rich and Famous – Mandarin-speaking nannies are all the rage, or you could pay $75,000/year to have your darlings tutored.
  • speed reading ee cummings: words written in lower-case are read more quickly than uppercase words, but once word frequency is taken into account, the effect is more limited.
  • Bilingualism Does Have Cognitive Advantages – Bucking the publishing trend noted last week, a new study finds that in fact bilingualism does have cognitive advantages. Counter-evidence: I consider myself fairly bilingual in Spanish/English, yet this morning I poured myself a cup of coffee, went out to get the paper, and then returned to the coffee pot and poured myself a second cup, forgetting completely about the first.
  • Placing the Face is Easier in Your Native Language – Researchers found that it was easier for a person to remember your name when you speak in the native language of an L2 speaker. Good dating advice, I should think.
  • Taiwan to Make English Its Second Official Language – A proposal is to be included in a new “national language development bill,” which includes promoting indigenous languages as well. One proponent said, “As long as people can understand each other, there is no need to get worked up about grammar and correct sentence structure.”
  • Everything You Wanted to Know About Cognitive Coupling During Reading* – It’s not as fun as it sounds. “Cognitive coupling” is reading the hard bits of a text more slowly than the easy bits so that you understand them better. The researchers found that when you “cognitively couple,” you do in fact understand better. (*Gwyneth Paltrow was not a co-author.)


  • Gemma Artieda, author of the study in Quick Takes last week regarding the influence of L1 reading habits on L2 proficiency, clarified for me that there were in fact two separate proficiency exams administered at the end of the study, not one.

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