2nd ELT research blog carnival learner autonomy – online data-driven dictionaries

Due to lack of time I could not contribute to the first ELT research blog carnival on listening, which I enjoyed reading a lot, so I am happy to be able to make the second one. As the saying goes the second mouse gets the cheese (sorry, sorry could not help throwing that in!).

Learner autonomy origins

It was interesting to discover that the modern development of learner autonomy originates from the CRAPEL unit in France (e.g. see references in the other contributions to the carnival). This center is where a major researcher in corpora and the classroom is based – one Alex Boulton (who is in fact also the current head of CRAPEL). I’ve wanted to write about the evidence for the effectiveness of corpora and so this post is an initial foray into that goal.

One of the claims of corpora approaches is that it will help learners to act as independent language researchers. On the face of it learner autonomy or self-regulated learning is a good thing. We would like students to be able to direct their own learning. I am hoping to learn more about the concept of autonomy from the other contributors to this blog carnival.

In general, corpora used as a reference tool has had great success, for example Yoon (2008) using case studies (6 students) reported that “A significant finding of the study is that students took more responsibility for their language learning as a result of their corpus experience.” (Yoon, 2008:45). Well great you might say, if the major positive effect of corpora is as a reference tool why not just use dictionaries?

The study

What I want to look at is a conference paper, Buyse & Verlinde (2013), which reports on the use of an online data-driven dictionary (Linguee) vs traditional online dictionaries. Before proceeding note that this conference paper has a lot of missing information. Also the effect of the intervention on learner autonomy is not direct, we are meant to assume that success as measured by post-tests (there was no pre-test) will lead to autonomy.

The study simulated a 2 hour writing test for translators and interpreters. There were three groups – the experimental group (n=17) had Linguee as the only tool, control group one (n=18) had corpora and traditional online dictionaries, and control group two (n=17) had corpora, traditional online dictionaries and Linguee. The task was to write a Spanish resume of a Dutch text.

Both a quantitative and qualitative approach was used.

The results showed the Linguee only group scored best on median scores on vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics but not on orthography. This also held true when comparing overall median scores to a cohort of students from an earlier course. From the qualitative questionnaire, students rated the combination of tools (Linguee + corpora + traditional online tools) as best but also were unhappy with the limited time given to use the combination of these tools in the two hour simulated test.

Final comments

As mentioned some vital information is not given in the report, e.g. details of procedures, materials, results. Also the design seems weak as there was no pre-test. Maybe a future paper may appear in a journal but as the conference is peer reviewed we may have some confidence in the report.

The paper concludes by reminding us that promoting autonomy needs triggers and rewards, things that a teacher can provide. So that one must not forget the pedagogy when integrating technology in the class.

From my experience of using corpora with my students it is clear that present corpora tools are not sufficient to promote self-regulated learning in students. A new generation of tools which uses corpora as an element along with others (e.g. spell checkers, traditional dictionaries etc), in a usable package, is necessary.

Thanks for reading and thanks to the organisers of the 2nd ELT blog carnival, and even though deadline is soon why not contribute?


Buyse, K. & Verlinde, S. (2013). Possible effects of free online data driven lexicographic instruments on foreign language learning: The case of Linguee and the Interactive Language Toolbox. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 95, 507-512. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042813041955/pdf?md5=47e8b8859c0862c75c5a98df43a1e5ac&pid=1-s2.0-S1877042813041955-main.pdf.

Yoon, H. (2008). More than a linguistic reference: the influence of corpus technology on L2 academic writing. Language Learning & Technology, 12, 2, 31-49. Retrieved from http://llt.msu.edu/vol12num2/yoon.pdf.