Apr 11, 2015

AAAL2015 convention: highlights, insights and implications

Rod Ellis presenting
While in Toronto for TESOL 2015 convention last month, I also attended - for the first time - the AAAL (American Association of Applied Linguistics) 2015 conference. The annual AAAL conference is conveniently held right before TESOL which gives ELT professionals travelling from all corners of the world an opportunity to attend both events back to back: the more classroom-oriented TESOL and its more highbrow cousin AAAL.

Here are some highlights:

Good news for incidental vocabulary acquisition

Speaker: Rod Ellis, University of Auckland

Renowned applied linguist Rod Ellis described an experiment he conducted with his PhD student to see whether students can pick up new vocabulary while listening. The answer is yes. Although relative gains (in receptive knowledge) were small, repeated listening (3 times) had an overall positive effect. As if anticipating an argument from the audience that repeating a listening task might seem as unauthentic, Ellis defended the validity and authenticity of repeated listening saying that it’s quite common in real life to record and then listen to the recording a few times. Interestingly, additions of pre-listening activities, such as topic preparation (activating background knowledge) and inferencing training (teaching students to infer meaning from context) didn’t contribute neither to comprehension nor incidental vocabulary learning. 

Target items in Ellis's study
After the session I asked Ellis if his findings contradicted those of Chang & Reid (2008) – see my post HERE – which he had mentioned in his talk. In Chang & Read’s study of various techniques which facilitates learners’ listening comprehension, topic preparation came out on top, followed by repeated listening.  Ellis conceded that perhaps topic preparation is more effective but raised concerns about its pedagogical validity: would you want to spend  40 minutes of classroom time on activating background knowledge - and do it in L1? Overall, Rod Ellis used the study to support his repeated calls for integrated approach to teaching vocabulary with listening or reading.

Practical implications

Texts – both reading and listening – should be used as vehicles for learning lexis and not only for comprehension or skills training. After a listening activity (with focus on comprehension) focus on vocabulary. For example, give students the transcript with some words missing and ask them to fill in the gaps using a bank of words.


See my article on how to derive maximum linguistic benefit out of texts: http://tinyurl.com/revtexts The article is about reading texts, but the same ideas are applicable to listening.

Processing chunks: same or different for L1 and L2?

Speaker: Masatoshi Sugiura, Nagoya University

There are 3 positions related to how chunks of language are stored in the brain:

  • Words-and-rules model as espoused by Chomsky and Pinker where mental storage consists of words and a repository of rules. I am simplifying horrendously here but, put simply, chunks are not stored in the brain as separate entries but are assembled on an as-needs basis by combining words and grammar
  • Frequency-threshold approach – supported, among others, by Alison Wray. This view holds that chunks that are highly frequent (e.g. I don’t know, It doesn’t matter, I’ve never been there…) are stored as separate entries in our mental lexicon, thus making processing more efficient.
  • Continuous approach which does not posit a separate, ‘holistic’ storage for frequent chunks (e.g. I don’t know) and on-line assembly for less frequent items (I don’t drink). Instead, frequency is considered a factor across the board: the more frequently we hear or see a phrase, the more entrenched it is in the brain and more readily activated in future.
Sugiura’s et al’s experiment shows that the continuous approach accounts better at how language users store information about chunks; and this applies to both L1 and L2 speakers. This explanation contrasts with Alison Wray’s hypothesis that chunks are stored as ‘wholes’ for native (L1) speakers but not for learners (L2 speakers) who tend to analyse chunks into constituent parts. For example, when coming across “This view holds" (see above) they will break it down into "view" and "hold" without (mentally) recording information about the two items occurring frequently together. On the contrary, Sugiuira’s experiment provides evidence that L2 learners (in his study, Japanese speakers) are sensitive to the frequency effects just like L1 speakers. The respondents were presented with four-word combinations - some more frequent (e.g. all over the place) than others (e.g. all over the city) - see more examples in the photo below. The more frequent the combination was, the shorter the respondents' reaction time was.

Practical implications

Because less frequent chunks are encountered… well, less frequently, teachers should explicitly draw students’ attention to them.

Insight gained (or, rather, confirmed) 

Frequency is the primary factor driving the acquisition process. The more frequent the linguistic item in the input, the earlier it will be acquired. Seen from this perspective, every instance of usage (hearing, seeing or using a phrase) influences its future processing, activation and use.


Connectionism lends further support to this usage-based view of language acquisition where language knowledge is built from exemplars found in language input. See my recent post on connectionism HERE.

Who's afraid of big bad phrasal verbs? 

Speaker: Helen Zhao, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Phrasal verbs are considered problematic for teachers and learners alike. Whether it is their inherent nature or if it is one of teacher-induced neuroses, phrasal verbs are a source of never-ending anxiety in the classroom. On the research front, a number of studies have shown (Laufer & Eliasson 1993, Liao & Fukuya 2004, Siyanova & Schmitt 2007) that learners avoid phrasal verbs opting instead for their one-word synonyms (that is based on assumption that they have one-word synonyms which yours truly doesn’t agree with – see why HERE)

More avoidance is normally observed in lower proficiency learners (Liao & Fukuya 2004) and with figurative phrasal verbs as opposed to phrasal verbs whose meaning is literal. Interestingly, Zhao’s study found to the contrary. Two groups of learners - intermediate and advanced - had to answer a series of multiple choice questions with phrasal verbs. The phrasal verbs (PVs) in the study were classified as follows:

Figurative PVs - High Freq 
(let down)
Literal PVs - High Freq 
(finish up)
Figurative PVs - Low Freq 
(let up)
Literal PVs - Low Freq 
(meet up)

Low frequency items were avoided more, confirming once again the frequency effects discussed above, but the tendency to avoid figurative PVs found in earlier studies was not observed. The most interesting finding, which provoked a lot of discussion and questions from the audience, was that advanced learners tended to avoid PVs more than intermediate ones.


Although the Zhao's findings contradict those of previous studies, for example those of Laufer (Batia Laufer who was in the audience had a lot to say about the paper), the fact that phrasal verbs with literal / non-figurative meanings are avoided more actually make sense to me. Figurative phrasal verbs whose meaning is more opaque might actually be more "noticeable" because of their uniqueness, for example He let me down or She hung up on me. Conversely, phrasal verbs whose meaning is more literal and semantically transparent often contain particles that learners may see as redundant. For example, in meet up, come over or finish off the particles (up, over, off) do not add much to the 'core' meaning of meet, come and finish respectively.
Free hour to look around Toronto
before getting back to the conference 

But why was the avoidance rate higher among advanced learners? Could it be because the advanced students chosen for the experiment were English majors (i.e. future English teachers)? And, as English majors, they were taught to use more sophisticated, higher register language, perhaps determined by the written model where phrasal verbs are less frequent than in spoken English?

Practical implications

Although the exact reason why advanced learners in Zhao's study avoided phrasal verbs isn't clear, what is clear is that the advanced level is not all about mastering less frequent and more sophisticated words but often revisiting seemingly easy combinations of already known words. Multi-part verbs are a good example of such items: they consist of both high-frequency verbs and very frequent particles and may be perceived by learners as too colloquial and 'low-level'. In fact, they are frequent in both spoken and written English. Gardner and Davies (2007) estimate that learners will encounter a phrasal verb in every 192 words of English, that is nearly 2 PVs per page of written text.

Links (updated)

For a list of most frequent phrasal verbs in English, see Gardner and Davies's corpus study in TESOL Quarterly - click HERE

For a more updated, pedagogically oriented list, see the PHaVE list compiled by Garnier & Schmitt -  click HERE (Thanks to Mura Nava for pointing me in its direction)

Overall, it was an interesting and, as you can see from this post, insightful conference. It's a pity that many of those researchers who attended and presented at it didn't stay on for the TESOL convention in order to disseminate the knowledge gained from their research. Likewise, it's a pity that those who came to TESOL didn't arrive in Toronto early enough to take in AAAL in order to stay up to date with the fascinating research being conducted in our field.


Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2007). Pointing out frequent phrasal verbs: A corpus-based analysis. TESOL Quarterly 41, 339-360.

Laufer, B., & Eliasson, S. (1993). What causes avoidance in L2 learning: L1-L2 difference, L1-L2 similarity, or L2 complexity? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 35-48.

Liao, Y. & Fukuya, Y. J. (2004). Avoidance of Phrasal Verbs: The Case of Chinese Learners of English. Language Learning, 54, 193–226. 

Siyanova, A. & Schmitt, N. (2007). Native and nonnative use of multi-word vs. one-word verbs. IRAL 45, 119-139.


  1. This is incredible and I will surely take part in these activities at the convention center. You are doing a great job posting these schedules. I must admit it’s not a simple task and you really need to put lot of efforts for posting this stuff.

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