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MIC Lecturer’s research findings into Grammar of English Language Learners  to have global impact

A recent report into grammar use of English language learners is set to have a global impact and could potentially bring about a recalibration of English grammar syllabi across the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages.

Dr. Anne O’Keeffe, Director of Teaching and Learning at Mary Immaculate College, and coresearcher Geraldine Mark, Academic Manager, Gloucestershire College; recently launched the findings of their four-year empirical research study as part of a largescale University of Cambridge project called The English Profile. The project is a collaborative programme endorsed by the Council of Europe, designed to create a ‘profile’ or set of Reference Level Descriptions for English.

One of its key components of the English Profile is the profiling of learner grammar. This component of the study was referred to as the English Grammar Profile and Cambridge University Press (CUP) commissioned Dr. Anne O’Keeffe and Geraldine Mark as Principal Investigators to this largescale grammar study, in 2010. The project took four years to complete and it now forms the basis of a prototype app which will eventually be released globally by CUP on an interactive platform.

The research brief for O’Keeffe and Mark was to audit the grammatical competencies of English language learners using computational tools to analyse a 55 million-word electronic database of English learner exam papers, held by CUP. This dataset, the Cambridge Learner Corpus, comprises over 200,000 exam scripts, from 215 countries, by speakers of over 143 first languages. 32 million words of the corpus have been coded for grammatical errors.

According to Dr. O’Keeffe this study could not have been undertaken on this scale 10 years ago as "In this study, all of the 55 million words of student English exam essays were available to us on a cloud and we could analyse it on a powerful interface custom-built for Cambridge University Press”.

The purpose of the study was to profile the grammar competencies of English language learners within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Within this competency framework, there are six levels and the aim of the project was to empirically arrive at reference level descriptors using the Cambridge Learner Corpus. Dr. O’Keeffe explains; “Our task was essentially to find out what grammar students actually know, and get right, at each level, by looking in great detail at the grammar patterns that they use in their exams. In many instances, we found that the intuitive assumptions about what grammar learners know, at different levels, were proved inaccurate by our research findings”.

The result of the analysis was an inventory of over 1,000 grammar reference-level descriptors, or competency statements. Speaking at the launch in Cambridge last week, Ben Knight, Director of Language Research and Consultancy, at Cambridge University Press, said, “The completion of the English Grammar Profile research project is a very significant achievement: it has produced an intricately detailed map of how grammatical competence develops among English language learners, with over 1,000 reference points that have been charted against the six levels of the internationally-accepted Common European Framework of Reference for Languages”.

Commenting on the painstaking research process, Knight noted that “Dr. Anne O'Keeffe and Geraldine Mark have doggedly pursued this task for over four years, mining the 55-million word Cambridge Learner Corpus to identify these evidence-based reference level descriptors”.

It is Cambridge University Press’s plan to move from their prototype app, which is based on the findings, to a globally accessible platform so that the research can realise its full impact potential thereby ensuring its global impact.  According to Ben Knight “Cambridge University Press is delighted that this essential work has been completed and is in the process of developing an online search portal that will be available to all language researchers, teachers and learners around the world”. Knight goes on to explain that Cambridge plans to make this resource available free of charge saying “Cambridge University Press aims to help educationalists understand better how English is learned and therefore make it easier to support the two billion learners of English around the globe”.

Dr. Anne O’Keeffe is Director of Teaching and Learning at Mary Immaculate College, where she is also senior lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature.  She oversees the Centre for Teaching and Learning, which also houses the Blended Learning Unit. Her main research in the area of corpus linguistics and has led to numerous publications. She also conducts research in teaching and learning, especially in relation appraising learners’ attitudes to technology-enhanced learning and the transition from traditional to blended learning.

Dr. O’Keeffe and Geraldine Mark are now in the process of publishing international peer-reviewed papers based on their work and have just had a paper on their methodology accepted by the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics.


Pictured at the presentation of the research findings in  Cambridge last week were researcher Dr. Anne O’Keeffe, Mary Immaculate College; Ben Knight, Director of Language Research and Consultancy, Cambridge University Press and Geraldine Mark, researcher and Academic Manager, Gloucestershire College

Mary Immaculate College, South Circular Road, Limerick, Tel:+35361 204300  V94VN26

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