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A comparative analysis of qualitative and quantitative research papers in second language education

A comparative analysis of qualitative and quantitative research papers in second language education
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The aim of this paper is to critically review and compare two research papers in the field of language education that adopted different methodological approaches – quantitative and qualitative. My analysis focuses on their key objectives, the methodology employed to achieve those objectives, the research scope within which the papers are located and the evidence that justifies their findings. As both papers are situated within a shared research field, there seem to be a number of similarities; nevertheless, significant distinctions also exist due to the fact that first, they are written by different authors using different approaches and second, they belong to considerably different periods. The articles are Klassen, C. (1991) Bilingual written language use by low-education Latin American newcomer and Spolsky, B. (1969) Attitudinal aspects of second language learning.

Key aims of the papers

Klassen’s main aim is to find out an alternative approach that would address the problem raised by American and Canadian studies (d’ Anglejan, 1983; Tollefson, 1985; Weinstein, 1984) that low-education adult newcomers from Southeast Asia and Central America into North America, specifically Canada tend to benefit very little from conventional second-language classes, which often result in their exclusion from acquiring basic skills for employment opportunities. The new approach, which Klassen calls sociolinguistic and considers as learner-centred, would explore the ways the newcomers use written language to articulate their everyday life experiences. He considers this as the main aim underpinning his research because, according to him, ‘little systematic knowledge exists about the everyday uses that any given group of low-education newcomers have for literacy skills.’

Spolsky’s paper also has a pedagogical aim to understand how second language learner’s attitude affects their language learning. Among other factors, such as method, age and aptitude, Spolsky believes attitudinal factor as very important, particularly the attitude of the learner to the language and to its speakers. Making reference to Lambert, 1963; Lambert and Garder, 1959; Lambert et al. 1963 and Anisfold and Lambert, 1961, he considers attitude as integrative motivation, which is necessary to successful mastery of a language. He, therefore, wants to find out the attitude of four groups of foreign students who come to the United States to attend universities affect their English proficiency.

It is, therefore, apparent that both papers aim to explore the problem of second language learning. While Klassen focuses on what Hymes (1994) would consider an ethnography of communication, that is, the sociolinguistic aspect of basic literacy skills for inclusion and opportunity among low-education adults, Spolsky is more concerned about exploring psychological factors to provide some answers to the problem of learning a second language. He, however, mentions in his conclusion that besides rediscovering the significant influence of psycholinguistic factors in language learning, sociolinguistics also remains an indispensable cause. Both papers’ aims are clearly articulated and are based on gaps proceeding from literature within their specific areas.

Methodological approaches

Klassen research is purely qualitative. As his aim is to have a more in-depth perception of how written language is used in everyday situations. He uses ethnography, but the type he calls exploratory rather than comprehensive. This is limited by his choice to solely rely on an interview as a tool for data collection rather than participant observation. There is a possibility, as a result, this limitation might affect the validity of his findings, that is, if the result would possibly remain the same with the use of participant observation. He conducted an interview with nine individuals – five men and four women – in bilingual classes of English and Spanish for almost one year.

The data collected were basically extensive narrative, and so, he classifies and discusses them according to themes and domains that surface, drawing examples from respondents’ answers and comparing them with findings of other related researches. He attributed this design to Messick and Spratt (1986). The domains that emerged over and over again in the data fall roughly into the categories of home, streets, and stores; bureaucracies; places of work; schools; and church (Klassen, 1991).

On the other hand, Spolsky’s investigation adopts a purely quantitative method by using questionnaires and a range of statistical tools to collect and analyze his data, respectively. He applies two types of questionnaires – direct and indirect – the former is used to rate fourteen possible reasons for learners’ coming to the United States, reasons the researcher considers as integrative or instructional, and the latter queries learners’ perception of the speakers (native) of the language. In addition to that, English proficiency test scores are obtained to compare achievement among learners and between their groups with the responses. This design is influenced by researches such as Lambert et al. (1963) and Anisfeld and Lambert (1961) with an aim to be able to isolate the effect of integrative motivation from other factors involved in second language learning.

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As can be seen from the analysis above, Klassen’s and Spolsky’s papers are distinctive methodologically, both in terms of a method for data collection and analysis. Klassen uses direct interview, recording, field note and discussion, while Spolsky uses a structured questionnaire, a measure of central tendency and correlational statistics. They, however, seem to use stratification in the sampling of their respondents. For example, Klassen though uses nine random respondents, but his interviews with them were stratified to reflect different domains of language usage. Spolsky directly applies a stratified sampling to group the respondents into four.

Research scope

In this aspect, I look at how the two scholars, through their concepts and conceptualization, are able to locate their arguments within a particular community of second language research.

To start with, Klassen, for example, claims to situate his work within a sociolinguistic literacy theory, an approach he argues it is based on the descriptively useful and tangible foundation of the everyday uses for written language, which provides a reasonably coherent theoretical framework across disciplines. This approach was first proposed by Heath (1983) following argument by many scholars (Graff, 1979; Street, 1984; Levine, 1986) on the inexplicability of literacy studies mainly due to its interdisciplinary nature. Klassen, therefore, places his work within this scope.

It can be argued that he successfully does that by extensively reviewing minority language researches (Hamel, 1984; Shaw, 1983; Burnaby, 1985) and education researches (Swed, 1981: Tollefson, 19885; Weinstein, 1984). Looking at the references, there is evidence, to an extent, of drawing input from a wide range of disciplines that underpin literacy studies.

Nevertheless, one can still say, Klassen does not explore as many theories of literacy studies as possible, such as the relationship between his underscored theory and sociocultural perspective, which views literacy studies from the interrelationships between language and culture (Halliday, 1973; Gee, 1996). Little is also said about the relationship between language and power as well as critical literacy studies, which already started attracting discussion when the paper was written.

Meanwhile, to position his research, Spolsky reviews a wide range of works in the area of second language pedagogy, particularly those that address factors that cause impact or effect in language proficiency. He appraises researches that examine the methodology, for example, the one written by Schere and Wertheimer (1964), which compares the effect of audiolingual and traditional approaches to teaching German in college. Another one that examines German and French was written by Smith and Berger (1968).

Besides methodology, Spolsky also explores aptitude, citing Carroll (1962, 1967) and Pimsleur (1962). All researches attribute some degree to effect of aptitude to second language learning. To provide a sound background and show the distinctiveness of attitude in language learning, Spolsky reviews over ten researches addressing the subject from different perspectives. This versatility gives his paper a foregrounded stance to establish itself within language education.

Comparatively, therefore, both papers, through an extensive and critical review of literature, are able to establish their scope within a research community – Klassen within sociolinguistic literacy studies and Spolsky at the intersection of social psychological theory and second language acquisition theory. Given the extent and depth of their discussion, Spolsky can be easily seen as situated within the fields of psycholinguistics and second language acquisition far more than Klassen, who the interdisciplinary disposition of literacy studies does not provide him with a definitive scope to stand.

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Findings and justification of the studies

In this section, I try to look at the result of each study and how it justifies the claims the researcher makes in creating the gap (s) that spring his investigation as well as to measure the achievement of his objectives against the results.

Klassen claims that using a new systematic sociolinguistic approach, he would investigate how written language is used in everyday life by low-education adults and, drawing from the knowledge of this usage, he would provide an insight, within literacy perspective, on how to integrate low-education newcomers from Southeast Asia and Central America into Toronto, Canada, to be able to acquire basic employability skills.

His claims begin to manifest in the design of his study. How systematic? Klassen himself opines that his methodological approach is not comprehensively ethnographic, an argument that could question the extent of his tool’s validity. According to Dornyei (2007), ethnography, originating in cultural anthropology, is a research that aims at describing and analyzing the practices and beliefs of cultures. Ethnographic investigations, therefore, require an inclusive participant observation that would avail the researcher the opportunity to collect firsthand information. He might have achieved a more significant aspect of his claims, using an exploratory approach, but it’s difficult to rule out some limitations.

Based on the findings, also, it is clear Klassen is able to establish the different domains in which the respondents use written language. These domains include home, streets, stores, bureaucracies, places of work, schools and churches. And in each domain there seems to be a characteristic use of written language, however with overlaps, for example, household paperwork, correspondence, school work and religious and leisure print are all areas of manifestation of written language in homes in most cases exclusively in Spanish.

With reference to an insight into how literacy is used in the context, the research discovers very elementary yet useful forms of literacy such as personal memory codes, logo and format recognition, and various levels of limited print and number literacy (Klaseesn, 1991). Other scholars (Fingeret, 1983; Heath, 1983; Kozol, 1985), according to Klassen, describe these practices as literacy skills that allow people who cannot decode the majority of words on bills, notices, forms, calendars, and lists of frequently used addresses and phone numbers to effectively manage these pieces of papers. If so, therefore, Klassen’s second major claim is justified.

On the other hand, using a statistical measure of central tendency, Spolsky is able to calculate the percentages of responses to the questionnaire, which he uses to draw his conclusion. For instance, using the direct questionnaire, he says, ‘not more than 20% of the students could be considered integratively motivated, the reminder giving instructional reasons for study in the U.S. (Spolsky, 1969). He, however, further observes that a comparison of the relationship of this motivation with proficiency in English shows no significant correlation. This validates his argument over previous research (Lambert, et al, 1963) that, when questioned directly, foreign students would not immediately admit to motives which suggest leaving their country permanently.

The correlational statistics that is used to compare between the four groups, considering proficiency levels and period of stay in the foreign country further helps to justify the claim of the researcher that integrative motivation is instrumental to the choice of the second language group.

If there is any limitation to the claims of this research is the fact that more than a questionnaire and a simple statistical representation of ideas are required to clearly explain the complexity and dynamism of human feelings, such as attitude. Perhaps, a follow-up interview or observation would have brought out an insight beyond what is seen in the structured questionnaire data. All the same, the quantitative approach of the research makes it more systematic and concise.

Different as they may appear to be methodologically, Klassen’s and Spolsky’s studies, to a large extent, justify their claims with some gaps left to be addressed, as already discussed.


In the final analysis, one can posit that both Klassen’s and Spolsky’s papers can be classified within the field of language education, with the former exploring the sociolinguistic aspect of language learning and the latter focusing on psycholinguistic factors that deal with integrative motivation. Both writers are able to come out with corresponding results to their principal aims. The primary distinction of the papers is the methodological approach that each adopts, which fundamentally influence the design of the studies – tools for data collection and analysis as well as the format and style of reporting. It is clear, therefore, methodology, even so within a common field of research, remains a catalyst for defining perspectives through which research problems are addressed.

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Lawan Dalha

Lawan Dalha

An applied linguist with research interests in academic writing and computer-assisted language learningView Author posts

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