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Implementing L2 Research in Materials Design
by Keith Folse
University of Central Florida

I am a teacher today because I have always loved school, and I am a materials writer because from an early age-even elementary school-materials design has always interested me. I can remember smelling the purplish ink on the mimeographed sheets that our teachers passed out to us in elementary and then junior high and high school. A quick glance at the sheet determined whether it was one that the teacher had made or one that came from the publisher. We could tell because of the formatting (in the days before personal computers abounded, the publisher's materials looked more professional) and the difficulty (the publisher's materials tended to be more difficult).

Even in elementary school, I remember noticing the formatting of exercises. In second grade, the teacher made us do our cursive alphabet writing on the front of the paper and then copy whole sentences on the back of the paper. When I violated her exercise format one day by writing my sentences on the front page, I got red ink on my paper. Evidently, there was a "best" way to Mrs. Harris's handwriting activity. Then my fourth-grade teacher taught us not to use our pencils to fill in the blackened squares on the crossword puzzles we had to create because the lead was messy and smeared easily. Instead, Mrs. Casanova showed us how we could get the same effect by drawing diagonal lines across the squares that we would have blackened. Perhaps the biggest effect on me was a social studies teacher. Evidently there was not a workbook for our social studies book, so Mrs. Cuevas made worksheets for us for practically every day. They consisted of fill in the blank exercises that had us go through the book looking for the answers. The exercise was called "key understandings," and that is exactly what this exercise made us learn. What was interesting about Mrs. Cuevas's worksheets was the formatting. Instead of having a long blank inside each sentence, she had a small blank in the sentence to indicate where the answer should be, but she had a longer blank on the left side of the page. The sheets were visually appealing. More importantly, with her design, a teacher could line up all thirty students' papers and grade them rather quickly.

Usual format:
1. George Washington was born in February of _______________.
2. John _______________ was the vice-president under Washington.

Mrs. Cuevas's format:
______________ 1. Washington was born in February of -----.
______________ 2. John ----- was the vice-president under Washington.

Many years later, I find myself writing materials for students learning English as a second language. A question that sometimes comes up when I am conducting workshops on teaching writing or teaching grammar has to do with the kinds of exercises or activities that I put in my materials.

Why do we materials writers use a multiple-choice exercise on one page, a fill-in-the-blank exercise on the next, and then an essay prompt on the last page of a unit? I had not given much thought to this until I started working on my doctorate six years ago and had a chance to look more carefully at the research that exists on second language acquisition. I noticed that there was a lot of research about the learner (e.g., learning styles, background knowledge, learner attitudes) and about the teacher (e.g., teacher preparation, teacher attitudes, methods), but I did not see anything about the materials, that is, the textbooks.

I am not saying that I did not find any research on materials design, but I found very little. This is especially shocking when you consider the number of textbooks that can be found at any TESOL conference or the amount of money spent on textbooks annually. Some of the research that interested me was on materials design and learning in L2 vocabulary (Chun & Plass 1996; Grace 1998; Hulstijn 1993; Paribakht & Wesche 1996; Tinkham 1993). Though there was not a lot of research, there was some, and what there was did seem to have implications for materials writers. Eventually, I compared the effect of commonly used exercises on L2 vocabulary learning in my own dissertation (Folse 1999). In my current teaching position, I am often on master's thesis committees, and have directed three thesis projects that deal with materials writing or design issues (Bernal 2002; Bizon 2001; Ortiz 2001).

So why do we use a certain kind of activity on a certain page? For the most part, it is based on intuitive feelings that we have developed through our own experiences as language learners and as language teachers. These may or may not be the best ways of practicing and learning a second language. What I hope to gain from continuing my research is identifying which types of materials result in better L2 learning or even whether there is any difference in learning because of different types of practices. We may find that the type of exercise does not make any difference, in which case we should write materials that have only fun exercises in them. However, all of these issues remain unanswered for the time being. It is up to us materials writers to take the lead in conducting research to find the answers to these important professional questions.

Selected bibliography of works on L2 vocabulary learning and materials design

Bernal, H. (2002). Thesis: The current status of pronunciation teaching and practice in ESL materials. Orlando: The University of Central Florida.

Bizon, T. (2001). Thesis: Frequency of Phrasal Verbs in Spoken English. Orlando: The University of Central Florida.

Chun, D. & Plass, J. (1996). Effects of multimedia annotations on vocabulary acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 80 (2), 183-199.

Folse, K. (1999). Dissertation: The effect of type of written practice activity on second language vocabulary retention. Tampa: The University of South Florida.

Grace, C. (1998). Retention of word meanings inferred from context and sentence-level translations: Implications for the design of beginning-level CALL software. The Modern Language Journal 82 (4), 533-544.

Henning, G. (1973). Remembering foreign language vocabulary: Acoustic and semantic parameters. Language Learning 23 (2), 185-196.

Hulstijn, J. (1992). Retention of inferred and given word meanings: Experiments in incidental vocabulary learning. In P. Arnaud & H. Bejoint (Eds.), Vocabulary and applied linguistics (pp. 113-125). London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Limited.

Hulstijn, J. (1993). When do foreign-language readers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words? The influence of task and learner variables. The Modern Language Journal 77 (2), 139-147.

Hulstijn, J. (in press). Intentional and incidental second-language vocabulary learning: A reappraisal of elaboration, rehearsal and automaticity. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hulstijn, J., Hollander, M., & Greidanus, T. (1996). Incidental vocabulary learning by advanced foreign language students: The influence of marginal glosses, dictionary use, and reoccurrence of unknown words. The Modern Language Journal, 80 (3), 327-339.

Jenkins, J., Matlock, B., & Slocum, T. (1989). Two approaches to vocabulary instruction: The teaching of individual word meanings and practice in deriving word meaning from context. Reading Research Quarterly 24 (2), 215-235.

Joe, A. (1995). Task-based tasks and incidental vocabulary learning: A case study. Second Language Research 11, (2), 159-177.
Joe, A. (1998). What effect do text-based tasks promoting generation have on incidental vocabulary acquisition? Applied Linguistics, 19 (3), 357-377.

Jourdenais, R., Ota, M., Stauffer, S., Boyson, B., & Doughty, C. (1995). Does textual enhancement promote noticing? A think-aloud protocol analysis. In R. Schmidt (Ed.), Attention and awareness in foreign language learning, (pp. 1-63). Manoa: University of Hawaii Press.

Knight, S. (1994). Dictionary use while reading: The effects on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition for students of different verbal abilities. The Modern Language Journal, 78 (3), 285-299.

Landauer, T., & Bjork, R. (1978). Optimum rehearsal patterns and name learning. In M. Gruneberg, P. Morris, & R. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 625-632). London: Academic Press.

Laufer, B. (1990). Why are some words more difficult than others? Some intralexical factors that affect the learning of words. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 28 (4), 293-307.

Laufer, B. (1998, March). A case for pushed output in incidental vocabulary acquisition. Paper presented at the annual meeting of American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL), Seattle, WA.

Laufer, B., & Shmueli, K. (1997). Memorizing new words: Does teaching have anything to do with it? RELC Journal 28 (1), 89-108.

Laufer, B., & Sim, D. (1985). Measuring and explaining the reading threshold needed for English for academic purposes texts. Foreign Language Annals, 18, 405-411.

Long, M. (1989). Task, group, and task-group interactions. Paper delivered at RELC Seminar, Singapore.

Long, M., & Porter, P. (1985). Group work, interlanguage talk, and second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly 19, 207-228.

Lotto, L., & De Groot, A. (1998). Effects of learning method and word type on acquiring vocabulary in an unfamiliar language. Language Learning 48 (1), 31-69.

Ortiz, E. (2001). Thesis: Gender Representation in ESL Textbooks. Orlando: The University of Central Florida.

Paribakht, T. S., & Wesche, M. (1996). Enhancing vocabulary acquisition through reading: A hierarchy of text-related exercise types. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue Canadienne des Languges Vivantes, 52 (2). 155-178.

Paribakht, T., & Wesche, M. (1999). Reading and "incidental" L2 vocabulary acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 195-224.

Prince, P. (1995). Second language vocabulary learning: The role of context versus translations as a function of proficiency. Modern Language Journal, 80 (4), 478-493.

Schatz, E., & Baldwin, R. (1986). Context clues are unreliable predictors of word meanings. Reading Research Quarterly, 21 (4), 439-453.

Schmitt, N. (1998). Measuring collocational knowledge: Key issues and an experimental assessment procedure. ITL., 119-120, 27-47.

Sciarone, A., & Meijer, P. (1995). Does practice make perfect? On the effect of exercises on second/foreign language acquisition. ITL 107-108, 35-57.

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effects of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21, 371-380.

Watanabe, Y. (1998). Input, intake, and retention: Effects of increased processing on incidental learning of foreign language vocabulary. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 287-307.

Zimmerman, C. (1997). Do reading and interactive vocabulary instruction make a difference? An empirical study. TESOL Quarterly (31) 1, 121-140.