SSHRC/CRSH 1999-2004 Project Summary

August 2004

This research explored the language competence of Quebec Francophone TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) trainees and its role in their teaching performance. Few of these trainees have their English assessed outside the Quebec school system that they have come from and will return to. The study's methodology involved the development and use of analytical computer software, based on several strands of applied linguistics research from the 1990s. The participants were several hundred students in the TESL program at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), 1999-2004.

The software tools initially included testing, corpus analysis, and reaction-time instruments, and were later joined by tutorial programs. All were developed with input from several hundred users (researchers and teachers) mainly at conferences (provincial, national, and international) and are now available for others to access on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website (

A substantial number of published papers have come out of this project and several graduate and undergraduate students have been paid to work on it. A great many hours have gone into software development, and some grant money has gone into hardware upgrades as both corpora and instruments grew in size and complexity.

There is a broad and a specific finding to this research. Broadly, on several levels (from grammar knowledge, to lexical knowledge, to syllable stress knowledge, to speed of word recognition), it is LINGUISTIC COMPETENCE that best predicts the academic and classroom success of Quebec TESL trainees (in contrast to native-speaking teachers where other, e.g. personality, factors play larger roles.) The specific finding, the real surprise of the research, is that it is competence in the FIRST LANGUAGE, French, particularly with regard to literacy, that better predicts their success as English teachers. Many of these future English teachers have hardly begun to transfer whatever language competence they have in French over to English at the time they begin their TESL preparation.

This complex finding has two main implications, one for admissions procedures, and the other for the content of TESL programs in Quebec. These programs should (1) include first-language measures, particularly concerning literacy, in their admission procedures, and (2) spend more program time on developing advanced competence in the second language, possibly at the expense of methodology and other pedagogical matters. That is, programs should make sure they get trainees with strong first language skills available for transfer, and then help them to achieve this transfer. To this end, project resources have been employed to develop a number of high-end online tutorial tools for advanced acquisition, again using the corpus approach of the research itself, again available at

The permanent contributions of this research include a world class ESL/FSL website used by 2000 researchers, teachers, and learners daily; a principled public techno-methodology for conducting learner corpus and lexical reaction time research; five major research papers or book chapters directly related to the project, 15 indirectly; and a principled proposal for the reorientation of TESL admission procedures and program orientation in Quebec.

Tom Cobb, Montreal, 18 Sept 2004