The use of microgenetic method in SLA research

Author

University of Isfahan, Iran

Abstract

Microgenetic  method  is  a  specific  method  for  studying  change  in  abilities,  knowledge,  and
understanding  during  short  time  spans,  through  dense  observations,  and  over  a  relatively  long
period of time. In this paper I will attempt to provide a brief overview of microgenetic method
and will point out its potential advantages and disadvantages in the context of second language
acquisition. To illustrate the utility of microgenetic method in SLA research, I will then discuss
a  SLA-related  issue  which  could  be  addressed  via  this  research  method,  namely  the  effects  of
written corrective feedback on L2 acquisition.

Keywords

Main Subjects


Introduction  
It  may  go  unchallenged  to  assert  that  the
process  of  Second  Language  Acquisition
(SLA) is enormously complex. It is complex
both  in  the  literal  sense  of  the  word  and  in
the  technical  and  metaphorical  sense  which
is realized in a Complexity Theory approach
to  SLA.  The  essential  prerequisite  of
unraveling this complexity is embracing and
coming to grips with constant flux as well as
non-linear, dynamic, and emergent behavior.
This  might  involve  a  change  of  perspective
and seems to be inevitable; in that the study
of  second  language  acquisition  is  the  study
of  a  complex  developmental  phenomenon
which is, by its very nature, interwoven with
change, variation, and non-linearity. Viewed
from  this  vantage  point,  a  macro-developmental  approach  (embodied  in
conventional  cross-sectional  and
longitudinal  methods)  may  not  afford
comprehensive  and  adequate  descriptions
and  explanations  of  the  SLA-related
phenomena.  This  is  because,  as  useful  as  it
may  be  for  depicting  the  products  of  a
process  of  change,  a  macro-developmental
approach  (e.g., longitudinal research)  is like
taking  snapshots  with  certain  intervals  in
between (Siegler & Crowley, 1991) and thus
cannot  provide  detailed  information  about
how  developmental  changes  occur  (Lee  &
Karmiloff-Smith,  2002;  Siegler  &  Crowley,
1991).  To  the  contrary,  a  micro-developmental  approach  (embodied  in
microgenetic  method  and  dynamic  systems
method),  which  resembles  making  a  movie
(Siegler  &  Crowley,  1991),  helps  observing
developmental  changes  directly  as  they
occur.  
 
Microgenetic  method  could  be  defined  as  a
specific  method  for  studying  change  in
abilities,  knowledge,  and  understanding
during  short  time  spans,  through  dense
 
observations,  and  over  a  relatively  long
period  of  time.  The  findings  obtained  from
this  method  of  research  bear  potential
significance  for  both  SLA  researchers  and
language  teachers.  As  regards  researchers,
this provides answers to such (longstanding)
questions  as:  Whether  the  provision  of
written  corrective  feedback  leads  to  L2
acquisition,  and  if  so,  how  (a  highly
controversial issue since 1996 which will be
further  discussed  in  this  article)?  This
research  method  could  also  yield  findings,
or  perhaps  “provisional  specifications”
(Stenhouse, 1975) for that matter, which are
more readily accessible to teachers in a wide
range of contexts, since through this method
“researchers can identify when interventions
may  work  and  when  teaching  may  become
beneficial; [and thus] they can provide more
accurate  predictions,  and  contribute  to
improved  teaching”  (Granott  &  Parziale,
2002,  p.  14).  Furthermore,  microgenetic
researchers  are  assumed  to  “[simulate] real
agents of change” and thus manipulations in
the laboratory have to do with what happens
in  the  real  world  (in  this  case,  language
classrooms)  (Thelen  &  Corbetta,  2002,  p.
60). This being the case, one of the problems
inherent in laboratory research – namely the
lack  of  ecological  validity  –  may  be
overcome.  
 
In  this  paper,  I  will  attempt  to  provide  a
brief  overview  of  microgenetic  method  and
will  point  out  its  potential  advantages  and
disadvantages  in  the  context  of  SLA.  To
illustrate  the  utility  of  microgenetic  method
in SLA research,  I will then discuss a SLA-related  issue  which  could  be  addressed  via
this  research  method,  namely  the  effects  of
written  corrective  feedback  on  L2
acquisition.  
 
Microgenetic  method:  Brief  history  and
general overview
The  concept  of  microgenetic  method  was
coined  by  the  Austrian  developmental
psychologist Heinz Werner in the mid 1920s
during  his  experiments  which  aimed  to
investigate  the  unfolding  of  successive
representations  that  comprised
psychological  events.  He  hypothesized  that
cognitive changes over various timescales  –
ranging  from  milliseconds  to  a  year  –  share
important commonalities (Siegler, 2006) and
this  very  hypothesis  has  turned  into  a
fundamental  assumption  underlying
microgenetic  method.  Microgenetic  method
was later approved by Vygotsky (1978) and
further  adopted  by  Piagetian,  Vygotskyan,
and  information-processing-oriented
researchers  working  in  the  area  of
developmental  psychology  (see  Siegler  &
Crowley,  1991  for  a  brief  review).  This
method  aims  to  (artificially)  expedite  the
natural  process  of  change  by  providing
participants  with  frequent  instances  of  a
stimulus (or a particular exercise/instruction)
which is hypothesized to drive the cognitive
development  so  as  to  enable  the  researcher
to observe the change process as it transpires
(Kuhn, 1995).  
 
Microgenetic method is identified with three
essential  properties  which  distinguish  it
from  conventional  longitudinal  methods
(Granott  &  Parziale,  2002;  Siegler,  2006):
(a)  observations  span  a  period  from  the
beginning  of  a  process  of  change  until  a
relatively  stable  state;  (b)  within  this  period
the density of observations is high relative to
the  rate  and  the  period  of  change;  and  (c)
observations  are  analyzed  intensively  via
trial-by-trial  analyses  which  zero  in  on
inferring  the  processes  that  gave  rise  to
qualitative  or  quantitative  changes.  It  is
important to note, however, that both micro-
and  macro-  developmental  approaches  (i.e.
both  conventional  longitudinal  and
microgenetic  methods)  subscribe  to  the
same epistemological position which, as Lee
and  Karmiloff-Smith  (2002)  point  out,
allows  for  the  objective  observations  and
independent  replications  of  the
  
developmental phenomena, quantification of
the  developmental  phenomena  in  terms  of
meaningful  units,  manipulation  of  the
developmental  phenomena  so  as  to  identify
the  underlying  factors  which  drive  specific
developments,  and  the  application  of
scientific  reasoning  to  the  description  and
explanation  of  the  developmental
phenomena in question.        
Advantages and disadvantages
Overall,  microgenetic  method  has  the
potential  to  help  SLA  researchers  deepen
their  understanding  of  L2  acquisition  and  is
applicable  to  both  laboratory  and  classroom
contexts  (Siegler,  2006).  The  advantages  of
microgenetic  method  are  diverse.  Drawing
on  Granott  and  Parziale  (2002),  I  will
summarize  and  categorize  these  advantages
under  three  main  headings  and  will  attempt
to  discuss  them  in  the  context  of  L2
acquisition:
 
(a)  Data: The dense observations during
short  time-spans  provide  us  with  valuable
information  regarding  the  processes  and
mechanisms  of  change  that  trigger  learning
and  the  development  of  language.  In  effect,
despite  conventional  longitudinal  research
methods  which  normally  adopt  a  state-oriented  perspective,  microgenetic  method
approaches  language  development  from  a
process-oriented  perspective  and  thus
affords  a  comprehensive  and  dynamic
picture of L2 acquisition. Some four decades
ago,  Selinker  (1972)  argued  that  the  data
that would be relevant for the study of SLA
are  those  that  deepen  our  understanding  of
the  psycholinguistic  mechanisms  and
processes  which  underlie  L2  performance
and  by  extension  L2  acquisition.
Microgenetic  method  has  the  potential  to
yield  such  data.  This  method  is  particularly
useful  for  studying  L2  acquisition  precisely
because  it  is  geared  towards  identifying
dynamic  and  self-constructive  processes  of
change  (Parziale,  2002)  –  two  features  with
which  interlanguage  is  increasingly  being
identified (Larsen-Freeman, 2006).   
 
(b)  Analysis:  Analyzing  the  data
obtained through microgenetic method could
potentially  reveal  important  attributes  of
change  (Siegler,  1996),  namely  its  path
(sequence of development);  rate; variability
(individual  difference);  and  sources  (i.e.
causes  which  give  rise  to  change).  As  it
happens,  all  these  issues  have  featured  in
SLA  research  over  the  last  three  decades  or
so (see Ellis, 2008 for an excellent account),
nevertheless  our  current  understanding
regarding  these  concepts  is,  to  a
considerable  extent,  based  on  inferences
drawn  from  data  obtained  under  rigorously
controlled  (quasi)experimental  conditions.
For  example,  the  source(s)  of  second
language  production,  Gass  and  Mackey
(2000) rightly point out, is not clear at all as
there  are  often  numerous  explanations  for
the language that learners produce and these
explanations  could  only  be  explored  if  we
adopt  a  process-oriented  perspective.  In
addition  to  providing  the  opportunity  for
direct observation of change processes, such
analyses  can  illuminate  how  instructions
actually  bring  about  their  effects  (Siegler,
2002)  which  could  be  of  paramount
importance to applied SLA researchers.  
 
(c)  Implications:  The  rich  data  and
detailed analyses which are the hallmarks of
microgenetic method can assist applied SLA
researchers  to  predict  when  teaching  and
pedagogical  interventions  can  be  beneficial.
Within the context of SLA, for instance, the
erroneous forms that learners produce after a
period  of  accurate  production  are  perhaps
precursors  of  a  change  process  in  their
interlanguage  systems  and  indicators  of  an
appropriate  time  for  the  provision  of
(intensive)  pedagogical  feedback,  for,  from
a  microdevelopmental  perspective,
participants  are  more  prone  to  positive
 

change  when  they  lose  stability  (Thelen  &
Corbetta,  2002)  or  when  backward
transitions  are  manifest  in  their
developmental  behavior.  This,  of  course,  is
not a new idea. Even a cursory examination
of  the  SLA  literature  reveals  that  such
notions  as  U-shaped  or  Omega-shaped
patterns  of  learning  have  been  around  for
decades  now  and  several  empirical  studies
have  testified  to  the  fact  that  the  initial
appearance  of  a  new  grammatical  feature
does not necessarily mark its consistent use.
But,  surprisingly,  this  very  fact  is  all  too
often simply ignored – a case in point is the
way  language  development  and  accurate
production of language are viewed and dealt
with in the majority of studies conducted on
the effects of written corrective feedback on
L2  acquisition.  Microgenetic  method  has
proved  a  useful  tool  for  studying
developmental  phenomena  which  exhibit
such  characteristics  (see  Kuhn,  1995).  In
addition,  and  more  importantly,  it  “can
reveal  the  steps  and  circumstances  that
precede  a  [developmental]  change,  the
change  itself,  and  the  generalization  of
change beyond its initial context” (Siegler &
Crowley, 1991, p. 608).      
 
These  positive  points  notwithstanding,  a
number of disadvantages stand out.   In fact,
not  unlike  any  other  research  method,
microgenetic  method  is  very  much  easier
described  and  discussed  than  actually  done!
Succinctly  put,  microgenetic  method  is
difficult  and  time-consuming  and
participants’  linguistic  abilities  and
developments  need  to  be  assessed
individually  so  as  to  glean  the  kind  of
detailed  data  with  the  properties  delineated
above  (Siegler  &  Crowley,  1991).  Apart
from  cumbersome  data  collection
procedures  and  in  turn  coding  problems
which  may  in  part  result  from  the
researchers’  attempts  to  artificially
accelerate  the  change  processes,  the
statistical  tools  with  which  to  analyze  such
data  are  perplexing  and  may  necessitate
team-based  research  endeavors.  However,
the  high-quality  and  detailed  data  that  this
research method yields is certainly worth all
the trouble.   
 
An  illustration:  Written  corrective
feedback and L2 acquisition
Since  the  publication  of  John  Truscott’s
(1996)  critical  article  on  the  futility  and
harmfulness  of  written  corrective  feedback
(WCF)  in  L2  writing  classes,  the  area  of
second  language  writing  has  witnessed  a
burst of interest in investigating the issue of
WCF  as  a  popular  practice  in  L2  writing
classrooms  (Bitchener,  2008;  Bitchener  &
Knoch,  2008,  2009,  2010;  Chandler,  2003;
Sheen,  2007,  to  name  but  a  few).  Yet,  after
more  than  a  decade,  reviewing  the  WCF
literature reveals that researchers have as not
yet  reached  a  consensus  as  to  the
effectiveness  of  WCF  for  L2  development
(Ferris,  2004;  Guénette,  2007;  Truscott,
2007,  2010).  There  is  also  a  considerable
debate  on  which  type  or  combination  of
different types of WCF the best is.  
 
Second  language  writing  researchers  now
agree  that  to  move  towards  a  complete
dismissal of claims made by Truscott (1996,
1999,  2007,  2010),  there  is  a  need  for  more
systematic and replicable research studies to
examine  both  short-term  and  long-term
benefits of distinct types and combination of
various  types  of  WCF  under  different
circumstances  and  in  both  ESL  and  EFL
contexts. Inspired by Ferris (2004), Guénette
(2007)  claims  that  the  existing  controversy
on  the  effectiveness  of  WCF  is  to  a  very
large  extent  attributable  to  the  fact  that
research  studies  conducted  so  far  have
indeed made use of so different (and in most
cases  somewhat  problematic)  research
designs  and  methodologies.  At  times,
according  to  Guénette  (2007),  the  internal
validity  of  such  research  is  subject  to  doubt
since  quite  rarely  have  researchers
  
controlled  for  the  potential  confounding
variables such as participants’ differential
motivation  and  a  myriad  of  contextual
factors. Thus, as Guénette (2007) and Ferris
(1999,  2003,  2004)  maintain,  if  we  are  to
reach  any  consensus  as  to  the  efficacy  of
WCF,  the  first  step  is  to  follow  tightly
controlled  procedures  which  help
conducting  systematic  and  replicable
research studies.  
 
Therefore,  based  on  this  account,  one  may
argue  that  the  complex  nature  of  WCF
would  warrant  studying  this  phenomenon
via  conventional,  albeit  methodologically
rigorous,  longitudinal  studies  (e.g.,
Bitchener & Knoch, 2010). However, results
of  such  studies,  per  se,  provide  but  an
incomplete  picture  of  L2  acquisition  and
may  not  be  readily  of  use  for  language
pedagogy  and  thus,  this  article  argues,  they
need to be complemented with the results of
process-oriented  research  (e.g.  microgenetic
method).  This  is  because  there  are,
undoubtedly,  innumerable  factors  which
influence L2 acquisition and in the long run
it  would  be  tremendously  difficult,  if  not
impossible, to isolate the effects of WCF on
L2  development.  Also,  note  that  teaching  is
essentially  a  ‘contingent  act’  (Larsen-Freeman, personal correspondence) and thus
the  more  we  control  for
extraneous/confounding  variables  the  less
ecologically  and  externally  valid  our  study
will be.   
 
This paper argues that microgenetic method
has the potential to enable us to examine not
only  the  effects  of  WCF  on  L2  acquisition
but,  more  importantly,  when,  where,  and
how  to  supply  WCF  in  order  for  it  to
efficiently  exercise  its  effects.  The  rationale
behind  this  argument  is  twofold:  (1)  as  it
was  noted  in  the  previous  section,
microgenetic  method  accelerates  the  change
processes  by  providing  participants  with
frequent  provisions  of  instruction/stimulus
in  a  way  that  would  not  occur  in  normal
experience  and  this  would  place  us  in  a
position to argue that the accelerated process
of change is to a very large extent a function
of  the  intensive  treatment  given  to  learners
(cf. Kuhn, 1995); and (2) since microgenetic
method  yields  detailed  information  about  
both  inter-  and  intra-individual  variability,
we  can  ascertain,  with  some  degree  of
certainty, when, where, and how participants
lose  stability  or  exhibit  backward  transition
in  their  developmental  behavior.  As  it  was
pointed  out,  participants  are  more  prone  to
developmental  change  when  variability  or
backward  transition  surface  in  their
linguistic  functioning  and  these  points  in
time  may  constitute  appropriate
opportunities for the provision of WCF.  
 
From  this  illustration  it  may  become  clear
how  viewing  L2  acquisition  from  a
microdevelopmental  perspective  benefits
both  SLA  research  and  L2  pedagogy:  SLA
researchers  deepen  their  understanding  of
the  nature  of  interlanguage  systems  and  the
variables which may affect its development,
and since such studies are ecologically valid
and  explore  the  underlying  acquisitional
processes, which are essentially the same in
all human beings, results could be used as a
basis  for  empirically-informed  decision
making in the classrooms.  
 
Conclusion
This  short  paper  aimed  to  introduce
microgenetic method and justify its utility as
a  viable  tool  for  investigating  SLA-related
phenomena.  Microgenetic  method  is  very
difficult  to  conduct,  nevertheless,  given  the
high-quality  and  detailed  data  that  this
research  method  yields  and  in  light  of  the
increasing  ease  with  which  to  analyze
complex  data  –  thanks  to  the  advancements
in designing versatile statistical software – it
is not irrational to envisage a future in which
 
 
microgenetic studies have proliferated in the
field  of  SLA.  This  may  make  it  imperative
for    SLA  researchers  to  not  only  keep
abreast  of  the  cutting  edge  language-related
developments  made  in  the  field  of
psychology  using  this  research  method  but
to consider this method as a useful option in
their research tool kit.

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