Generally speaking, my research activities deal with issues related to curriculum, teaching, and learning in second language education. More specifically, most of my work focuses on practical and theoretical aspects of learning transfer in second language education.
Learning transfer refers to the application of learning outcomes in novel situations. For example, if I know how to play the guitar, and then try to learn to play the violin, I may apply some of my guitar skills to this new instrument. If I do this, I am transferring my guitar playing skills to this new situation.
There are a couple of other interesting examples on this page, in the form of TV commercials:
There is already a large body of research on learning transfer as the influence of a person’s first language on the person’s second language learning and use. But this is only one way of looking at learning transfer in second language education. Learning transfer is also relevant as a goal of second language education: If students can’t apply outside the classroom what they learn in the classroom, the value of instruction is questionable. In this sense, learning transfer is just as important as learning itself.
… And here’s the problem: Learning transfer is often assumed to occur in and from second language and other educational settings. If students can demonstrate in the classroom that they have learned something (for example, by successfully completing a test), it may be taken for granted that they will be able to apply what they have learned outside the classroom (for example, in a different course, at home, or at work). In other words, if students learn, then they must be able to transfer that learning. But, a century’s worth of research on learning transfer (primarily in psychology and human resources development) shows that learning transfer isn’t inevitable and can be very difficult to stimulate!
With my research, some questions I have investigated are:
- What second language learning transfers beyond learning contexts?
- What factors influence this transfer?
- How “far” will second language learning transfer?
- What can educators do to promote transfer of second language learning?
My work in this area (see abstracts below) has been published in a variety of journals (ELT Journal, English for Specific Purposes, International Review of Applied Linguistics, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Journal of Second Language Writing, Korea TESOL Journal, Language Teaching, TESOL Journal, TESOL Quarterly, The Modern Language Journal, Written Communication), encyclopedias (Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, TESOL encyclopedia of English language teaching), and edited books (Effective second language writing, Refresh: The changing role of Freshman English, Studies and essays on learning, teaching, and assessing L2 writing in honour of Alister Cumming).
James, M.A. (2020). Second language writing instruction and learning transfer: A systematic review of research. In A.M. Riazi, L. Shi, and K. Barkaoui (Eds.), Studies and essays on learning, teaching, and assessing L2 writing in honour of Alister Cumming (pp. 28-55). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
A central purpose of second language (L2) writing instruction is to help students develop writing abilities that will transfer beyond the immediate instructional context. This is a substantial challenge, first because a large interdisciplinary body of research has shown that learning does not inevitably transfer, and second because different L2 writing instruction contexts can demand very different kinds of learning transfer. This challenge points to important questions: What kind(s) of learning transfer, if any, does L2 writing instruction actually promote? Where and when does this occur? Research that has focused on L2 writing instruction, and learning transfer has shed some light here, but the picture has been limited in detail. However, a more detailed picture can be generated by examining a related body of research: experimental studies of L2 writing instruction and learning. While these studies do not focus explicitly on learning transfer, evidence of learning transfer can be apparent in the findings. With this in mind, a collection of 43 experimental studies of L2 writing instruction and learning was systematically reviewed using the transfer taxonomy of Barnett and Ceci (2002), an analytic tool that provides a 9-dimensional view of learning transfer. This review indicates that L2 writing instruction can promote learning transfer of various kinds and this transfer can occur over various distances. Implications for research on L2 writing instruction and learning transfer are discussed.
(This publication does not have an abstract. It is a research timeline that describes key trends in scholarly work on teaching for transfer of second language learning. Click here for an extract.)
Focusing on South Korean secondary school students’ self-efficacy to communicate in English, this experimental study examined the influence of communication practice. Participants were 83 students from 10th through 12th grade English classes at a secondary school in an urban location in South Korea. The study took approximately four weeks, during which the participants were divided into three groups: participants in group one did a collection of activities to practice communicating in English, and received feedback on their communicative success; participants in group two did a collection of activities to practice communicating in English, but did not receive feedback on their communicative success; participants in group three did not do any activities. Self-efficacy was measured for all three groups at the beginning and again at the end of this period. Results showed a significant increase in self-efficacy for groups one and two, but not for group three. These results suggest that, independent of the kind of feedback students receive, practice communicating in English can help to build EFL students’ self-efficacy.
For teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) to be seen as having substantial impact, learning that occurs in the classroom must transfer to situations outside the classroom. Unfortunately, education research shows that transfer can be difficult to promote. Therefore, ESOL teachers may want to ensure that their classes are as conducive as possible to transfer. In the many ESOL contexts in which textbooks play a central role in classes, this will mean ensuring that the textbooks used help as much as possible to promote transfer. However, evaluating the potential of ESOL textbooks to help promote transfer may not be straightforward with existing published resources. Therefore, this article describes and demonstrates a new textbook evaluation tool that was designed based on key ideas in scholarly work on learning transfer and patterns in current ESOL textbooks. The aim is to provide a practical tool that teachers can use to evaluate the potential of ESOL textbooks to promote learning transfer.
Transfer of learning has been a topic of widespread interest for over a century in diverse areas of scholarly work. This includes L2 writing education, where transfer of learning is an underlying goal. This entry discusses key research questions and findings about transfer of learning in L2 writing education (i.e., what learning transfers, where, when, and why learning transfers, and how learning transfer is conceptualized) and teaching-related implications (i.e., use of teaching-for-transfer techniques, preparation of students for unsupportive transfer climates, building of students’ transfer motivation).
James, M.A. (2015). Transfer of learning in English for academic purposes (EAP) education. In B. Rodrigues, B. Kokturk, H.S. Aydogan, M. Guceri, and Z.I. Onel (Eds.), Refresh: The changing role of freshman English (pp. 6-11). Istanbul, Turkey: Sabanci University School of Languages.
(This publication does not have an abstract. However, to summarize, this conference proceedings entry focuses on four key questions: 1. What is learning transfer? 2. Why is learning transfer important in English-for-academic-purposes [EAP] education? 3. What kind of learning transfer, if any, occurs in EAP education? 4. What can EAP educators do to help promote learning transfer?)
A fundamental goal of EAP instruction is learning transfer to students’ other courses. Although research has provided evidence of such transfer, gaps exist regarding its circumstances. However, a related body of research, focusing on learning in EAP contexts, is of value here: While this research does not provide evidence of transfer specifically to other courses, it does provide evidence of transfer across situations in EAP contexts, and an analysis of this can shed light on transfer to other courses. Therefore, 41 studies that investigated learning in EAP contexts were analyzed using the transfer taxonomy (Barnett & Ceci, 2002) (i.e., a 9-dimension analytic tool developed to clarify research on transfer and used to analyze studies in experimental psychology). This analysis revealed much about what is possible for transfer in EAP contexts, specifically that (a) instruction can result in transfer, and such transfer can (b) involve various kinds of learning, (c) have a positive impact on the quality of students’ work, (d) occur in situations that place minimal demands on students’ memories and in situations that place greater demands on students’ memories, and (e) occur across varying distances. Implications for research and practice in EAP contexts are discussed.
Research on motivation in second language (L2) education has tended to focus on learning; this study took an alternative perspective, examining students’ motivation to transfer L2 learning. Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with 40 students who were enrolled in several sections of a university English-for-academic-purposes (EAP) writing course and who were concurrently taking other academic courses in various disciplines. The interviews focused on whether students were motivated to transfer learning from the EAP course to their other courses and what factors influenced this motivation. Analysis of the interview data indicated that true motivation to transfer (i.e., a combination of desire, favorable attitudes, and effort) was rare. The factors that influenced these students’ motivation to transfer learning from the EAP course to their other courses fell into eight categories (e.g., perceptions of opportunity for transfer; personal beliefs about transfer). Implications of these findings for theory, practice, and future research related to L2 transfer motivation are discussed.
(This publication does not have an abstract. However, to summarize, this encyclopedia entry describes the relationship between cross-linguistic influence and transfer of learning.)
This case study involved a detailed examination of learning transfer from an English-for-general-academic-purposes writing course to tasks that involve writing in other academic courses. Data were gathered over one academic year from 11 students enrolled in the writing course. These students participated in a series of interviews and provided copies of writing they produced in the writing course and other courses. The interview transcripts were examined for reports of learning transfer, and the writing samples were examined for transfer of 10 learning outcomes targeted in the writing course. Findings indicated that a wide variety of learning outcomes did transfer from the writing course across task types and disciplines; however, this learning transfer was more frequent (a) for some learning outcomes (e.g., avoiding fused sentences; framing; using temporal transitions) than for others (e.g., using past perfect verb tense accurately; using similes/ metaphors), (b) in some disciplines (e.g., humanities; social sciences) than in others (e.g., natural sciences), and (c) with some task types (e.g., synthesis of multiple sources) that with others (e.g., explanation of calculations). Implications of these findings for research and practice in second language writing education are discussed.
This chapter describes an innovative approach to content-based instruction (CBI) in a freshman ESL writing course at a US university. This approach involved using second language learning as the content of the course. For example, the students read scholarly articles about the needs of ESL students at English-medium universities and then wrote essays about this content. The writing the students produced for the essays was of relatively high quality and reflected multiple benefits of this course design.
This chapter describes this curriculum innovation in detail so other ESL writing teachers can judge its relevance for their own contexts. Included is an explanation of why this CBI approach was adopted, details about the teaching environment and the innovation itself, and examples of learning outcomes. The chapter concludes with reflections on the outcomes of this curriculum innovation.
This study examined the applicability of the construct transfer climate in EAP education. In an EAP setting, transfer climate can be viewed as the support for learning transfer from an EAP course that students perceive in mainstream academic courses. The research question was as follows: What can a transfer climate perspective reveal about challenges EAP students face in a mainstream academic setting? Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with 52 students who were enrolled in several sections of a university EAP writing course and who were concurrently taking other academic courses in various disciplines. The interviews focused on students’ perceptions of (a) instructors’ support for learning transfer, (b) peers’ support for learning transfer, and (c) personal outcomes resulting from learning transfer. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of data revealed that students can perceive a lack of support for learning transfer and pointed to specific features of the mainstream academic setting that contributed to these perceptions (e.g., instructors’/peers’ explicit negative references to EAP courses; instructors’/peers’ ineffective or careless language use; little or no connection between language use and grades). Implications of these findings for theory, practice, and future research are discussed.
This paper presents a detailed examination of learning transfer from a university ESL writing course to a writing task with characteristics very different from the kind of writing done in the ESL writing course but typical of the kind of writing required in other academic courses (i.e., involving text-responsible writing [Leki & Carson, 1997]). Thirty students completed this task. To try to stimulate transfer of learning outcomes from the course to the task, half of the students were asked before they started writing to identify similarities between the task and work in the writing course. All students were interviewed afterwards about how they completed the task. The students’ writing from the task and from one assignment from the course was assessed for use of 15 writing strategies targeted in the course; also, students’ reports of intentional learning transfer were identified in the interview transcripts. Results indicated that learning outcomes did transfer from the course to the task, but in a constrained way; also, asking students to identify similarities between the task and the course did not promote learning transfer. Implications of these findings for theory, practice, and future research in second language writing education are discussed.
This study investigated the influence of students’ perceptions of task similarity/difference on the transfer of writing skills. Forty-two students from a freshman ESL writing course completed an out-of-class writing task: For half of the students, the subject matter of the writing task was designed to be similar to the writing course; for the other half, it was designed to be different. All students were also interviewed about the writing task. Reports of learning transfer were identified in the interview transcripts, and students’ performance on the task and on a recent assignment from the course was assessed. Results indicated that the intended task similarity/difference (i.e., in subject matter) did not have the expected impact on learning transfer; however, students’ perceptions of task similarity/difference did influence learning transfer. Implications of these findings for theory, practice, and future research are discussed.
One branch of research in second language acquisition has investigated the ways a learner’s interlanguage (IL) varies between tasks. IL variation research has examined linguistic, psycholinguistic, and sociolinguistic constraints, and has revealed much about this phenomenon. An additional potentially-useful perspective that has, to this point, been virtually unused in IL variation research and theory, is the cognitive psychology construct transfer of learning.
This paper examines the relationship between IL variation and transfer of learning. An argument is made that IL performance is learning transfer; so, variation in IL performance may in some cases be related to constraints on learning transfer. If that is the case, research and theory on learning transfer can contribute to research and theory on IL variation, and several ways this may happen are described.
This paper describes an investigation into the learning outcomes that transferred from a university content-based EAP course to other courses and the factors that influenced that transfer. The study was a longitudinal qualitative case study in one faculty at a large North American university. Data were collected over one academic year through multi-pronged assessment measures from five first-year students who were participating in a content-based EAP course concurrently with other first-year university courses, as well as from two instructors of the content-based EAP course, 16 instructors of other courses, and one administrator. Data included interview transcripts, participant journals, class observation notes, and samples of course work.
Evidence emerged to indicate that learning transfer did occur from the content-based EAP course to the students’ other courses. The learning transfer fell into six broad categories that reflected a range of academic language skills (e.g., listening comprehension skills; writing skills) and other learning outcomes (e.g., study skills). The transfer of these learning outcomes was influenced by eight factors (e.g., requirements for learning transfer in activities in other courses; similarity between the content-based EAP course and other courses). Implications of these findings for theory, practice, and future research are discussed.
A basic goal of ELT is that students will apply outside the classroom what they have learned in the classroom. This goal is related to transfer of learning. Research on transfer of learning suggests that this phenomenon is not automatic and can be difficult to stimulate. However, instruction can be designed to try to promote transfer of learning. This article describes different ways learning transfer can occur and examines from an ELT perspective techniques that have been suggested for teaching for transfer in general education. The article closes with questions that might form the basis for further exploration of this topic.
Cumming, A.H., Kantor, R., Baba, K., Eouanzoui, K., Erdosy, M.U., & James, M. (2005). Analysis of discourse features and verification of scoring levels for independent and integrated prototype written tasks for the New TOEFL. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
We assessed whether and how the discourse written for prototype integrated tasks (involving writing in response to print or audio source texts) field tested for the new TOEFL differs from the discourse written for independent essays (i.e., the TOEFL essay). We selected 216 compositions written for 6 tasks by 36 examinees in a field test—representing Score Levels 3, 4, and 5 on the TOEFL essay—then coded the texts for lexical and syntactic complexity, grammatical accuracy, argument structure, orientations to evidence, and verbatim uses of source text. Analyses with nonparametric MANOVAs, following a 3-by-3 (task type by English proficiency level) within-subjects factorial design, showed that the discourse produced for the integrated writing tasks differed significantly at the lexical, syntactic, rhetorical, and pragmatic levels from the discourse produced in the independent essay on most of these variables. In certain analyses, these differences were also obtained across the 3 ESL proficiency levels.
Cumming, A., Kantor, R., Baba, K., Eouanzaoui, K., Erdosy, U., & James, M. (2005). Differences in written discourse in independent and integrated prototype tasks for next generation TOEFL. Assessing Writing, 10, 5-43.
We assessed whether and how the discourse written for prototype integrated tasks (involving writing in response to print or audio source texts) field tested for Next Generation TOEFL® differs from the discourse written for independent essays (i.e., the TOEFL Essay®). We selected 216 compositions written for six tasks by 36 examinees in a field test—representing score levels 3, 4, and 5 on the TOEFL Essay—then coded the texts for lexical and syntactic complexity, grammatical accuracy, argument structure, orientations to evidence, and verbatim uses of source text. Analyses with non-parametric MANOVAs followed a three (task type: TOEFL Essay, writing in response to a reading passage, writing in response to a listening passage) by three (English proficiency level: score levels 3, 4, and 5 on the TOEFL Essay) within-subjects factorial design. The discourse produced for the integrated writing tasks differed significantly from the discourse produced in the independent essay for the variables of: lexical complexity (text length, word length, ratio of different words to total words written), syntactic complexity (number of words per T-unit, number clauses per T-unit), rhetoric (quality of propositions, claims, data, warrants, and oppositions in argument structure), and pragmatics (orientations to source evidence in respect to self or others and to phrasing the message as either declarations, paraphrases, or summaries). Across the three English proficiency levels, significant differences appeared for the variables of grammatical accuracy as well as all indicators of lexical complexity (text length, word length, ratio of different words to total words written), one indicator of syntactic complexity (words per T-unit), one rhetorical aspect (quality of claims in argument structure), and two pragmatic aspects (expression of self as voice, messages phrased as summaries).
(This publication does not have an abstract. However, to summarize, this “perspectives” entry focuses on three key questions: 1. What is the L2 syllabus? 2. Are these notions of the L2 syllabus current? 3. How can [or should] these notions be reflected in practice?)
The English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classroom for adult immigrants in Canada is often culturally diverse. From an instructional perspective, the role of culture can be complicated. This article presents a framework for examining culture in an ESL instructional context. An explanation of the rationale behind the framework is followed by a description of the way the framework was applied to the LINC Curriculum Guidelines (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ontario Region, 1997) to test its usability as an analytical tool. Suggestions are made for directions for further research.
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