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Educational Linguistics


First named as a field 30 years ago and defined in two introductory books (Spolsky, 1978; Stubbs, 1986), the title “educational linguistics” was proposed by Bernard Spolsky in 1972 for a discipline whose primary task would be “to offer information relevant to the formulation of language education policy and to its implementation” (1974:554). It is an area of study that integrates the research tools of linguistics and other related disciplines of the social sciences in order to investigate holistically the broad range of issues related to language and education.

In his book “The Handbook of Educational Linguistics”, Spolsky (2008) says that he first proposed the term “educational linguistics” (EL)

because of his dissatisfaction with efforts to define the field of applied linguistics and of his belief in the close relationship among research, theory, policy, and practice. He asserted that it should be a problem-oriented discipline, focusing on the needs of practice and drawing from available theories and principles of relevant fields including many subfields of linguistics (Hornberger, 2001). Pica also supports this idea and sees it as a problem- and practice- based field “whose research questions, theoretical structures, and contributions of service are focused on issues and concerns in education” (1994: 265).

With the responsibility it has taken for L1 and L2 learning, EL has become particularly influential on the scholars engaged in Foreign Language Education (FLE), who attempt to understand how teachers teach and how students learn languages in schools, and especially how they acquire foreign literacy skills, that is, the ability not only to comprehend and interpret but also to create written texts in the foreign language. FLE has become, since the 1920s, a highly scientific field of research that draws its insights mostly from social and educational psychology, thus educational linguistics (Kramsch, 2000).

In the following sections, educational linguistics will be examined in detail creating associations with foreign language learning/teaching (FLL/FLT). In addition to the background information and its relations to a number of approaches, theories, and methods; its principles and how they are implemented in ELT settings will be discussed. Moreover, its relations to language teacher education and its contributions to FLL and FLT will be put forward. Finally, advantages and disadvantages of educational linguistics will be given in an objective way.


The problem-oriented nature of EL leads it to look to linguistics together with other relevant disciplines such as theoretical linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, anthropological linguistics, neurolinguists, clinical linguistics, pragmatics, discourse analysis and educational psychology. This transdiciplinary structure provides it to be associated with a number of approaches, theories and methods.

2.01 Whole Language Approach

Rigg (1991) claims that the term “whole language” comes from educators not from linguists. It is an approach developed by educational linguists in 1980s to teach literacy in the mother tongue, which is one of the important issues that educational linguists are concerned. In this approach, it is emphasized that learning goes from whole to part for the reason that the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts. Actually, it can be traced back to Gestalt Psychology, which is a theory of mind and brain proposing that the operational principle of the brain is holistic. Similarly, Whole Language Approach adopts the view that learning cannot be achieved through isolated entities; that exacly corresponds to the educational linguists’ hatred for segmental phonogy and their insistance on educational phonology.

2.02 Humanistic Approach

Humanistic Approach originated by Carl Rogers in 1951 (Demirezen, 2008), also has close links with EL in the sense that it focuses on the emotional side of learning and the principles such as learner-centeredness, cooperation and unearting students’ potentials, which are also basic elements of educational psychology, and thus EL.

2.03 Communicative Approach

Communicative Approach is also associated with EL regarding the idea that the fundamental aim of language instruction should be communicating in the target language. In order to achieve this, it is not sufficient to have a comprehensive knowledge of language forms and functions; what is further needed is exchange of meanings in real communication.

2.04 Discourse Theory

Discourse theory and especially discourse analysis play a significant role in Educational Linguistics. As Stubb (1986) stresses that it is important to distinguish between language in education and linguistics in education, referring to the need to study language “in its own terms” (1986:232), as a discourse system, rather than treating language at the level of isolated surface features, ignoring its abstract, underlying, sequential and hierarchic organization.

2.05 Interactionist Theory

In parallel with communicative approach, interactionist theory also puts emphasis on the effect of social environment in which linguistic competence can be turned out to be communicative competence through interaction and by the help of nonverbal components, much more meaningful language learning can be achieved, as proposed by educational linguists. It is worth noting that “classroom interaction” is the core of educational linguistics research.

According to the associations given above, it is obvious that communicative language teaching, silent way, suggestopedia, TPR and other methods such as task-based and competency-based language teaching can also be linked to educational linguistics.


As a research area, educational linguistics is very young. Its birth occured in 1972 with the works of Bernard Spolsky in America. As mentioned earlier, it grew from the discomfort with the ambiguity of the term “applied linguistics”. Therefore, the history of educational linguistics is inextricably linked to applied linguistics.

Since its inception, applied linguistics has had a broad scope, but it is language and education that has come to be dominant (Spolsky, 2008). In 1950s, it included a wide range of topics (linguistic geography, dictionary and literature, rhetoric, stylistics, lexicography, general language planning, etc.); however, while ELT was gaining momentum in 1960s and booming by the 1970s, many of these areas which were included in applied linguistics either received less attention or became the object of interest of other developing areas of study.

The problems and controversies regarding the nature and scope of applied linguistics were driving forces in Spolsky’s decision to formulate a more precise title for the research studies specifically related to language and education. Moreover, there was also an implication in the term applied linguistics that linguistics is simply applied to issues of social practice. Such a “unidirectional” approach is undesirable and even dangerous especially in education where attempts by linguists to insert their theories directly into practice have led to disastrous results in, for example, phonemic approaches to reading and audiolingual approaches to general language learning (Spolsky, 2003: 503).

Spolsky felt that applied linguistics in broad sense obscures the work specifically devoted to language and education. He also felt that to use applied linguistics in a narrow sense to refer to only language education research obscures the multiplicity of the work being done within the field in other domains. Namely, the term applied linguistics was imprecise and disadvantaging for everyone concerned (Spolsky, 2008).

He first set fourth his vision for its nature in a presentation at the third AILA congress in 1972, later published in its proceedings. Then, in 1976, the department of Educational Linguistics was established at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education within the deanship of Dell Hymes (Hornberger, 2001). In 1978, Spolsky published a seminal monograph on educational linguistics. Moreover, in 1984, the journal Working Papers in Educational Linguistics has been established, and since then, sixteen volumes have been published under student editorial direction which include topics ranging from speech act analysis and classroom discourse to language planning and second language acquisition.

At the beginning, people thought that his objective was to provide a new label for applied linguistics. This was largely stemming from a view of applied linguistics as being solely occupied with language and education. However, it was later understood that it’s a “unified field within the wider discipline of applied linguistics” (Spolsky,1978: 2). And today, it has turned out to be an independent field whose “starting point is always the practice of education and the focus is squarely on the role of language in learning and teaching (Hornberger, 2001: 19). Now, it is widely believed that it is EL which should be responsible for L1 and L2 learning, not applied linguistics.


Concerning the nature and composition of EL, Spolsky (2008) puts forward that language teaching takes place in a school and is closely tied to sociological, economic, political, and psychological factors. Therefore, a good language education policy or effective methods of implementation will not ignore linguistics and the other related fields but will represent much more than an application of linguistics. In this respect, educational linguistics is concerned with the dynamic ways in which theory, research, policy, and practice inter-relate, and all work done under the rubric of educational linguistics is focused on this relationship. Actually, what is distinctively important in his original formulation is his “problem-oriented approach” to doing educational linguistics (Hornberger, 2001).

Problem-oriented nature of Educational Linguistics

In educational linguistics, one does not simply apply disciplinary knowledge to a specific situation. Instead, the researcher starts with a problem (or theme) related to language and education and then synthesizes the research tools in his/her intellectual repertoire to investigate or explore it (Hornberger and Hult, 2006). Here, the synthesis of research tools refers to a number of methods used in related fields for data acquisition and analysis such as tutorials, observations, surveys, questionnaires, statistics, national/international anthropological archives, goverment information sources, etc. All these research tools present educational linguists the data from different perspectives and help attaining reliable and valid findings for a specific situations.

Still, Spolsky admits that linguistics has a central role to play and it is in this area that most educational linguists will have their primary training. However, while there has been a consensus on the relevance of linguistics for education (and also education for linguistics), there is still less clarity as to the nature of this relationship between them: is it application, implication, interpertation or mediation? Or is it coexistance, collaboration, complementarity or compatibility?

Spolsky insistently emhasizes that educational linguistics “should not be, as it often seems, the application of the latest linguistic theory to any available problem”, but rather a problem-oriented discipline focused on the needs of practice (1975:347). He argues that linguistics has applications to and implementations for education, both directly through language descriptions and secondarily through linguistic subfields. At the same time, such a relationship includes the “coexistance of activities, collaboration of efforts, complementarity of contributions, and compatibility of interests” – a balanced reciprocity which may well serve as a model for theory and practice in the whole of the educational linguistics field (Hornberger, 2001: 9).

In educational linguistics, the focus on educational practice is both indirect and direct. The knowledge generated in EL may be used to guide the process of crafting sound educational language policy which is designed to influence practice. On the other hand, this knowledge may be used to guide sound teaching practice as it is implemented in relation to educational language policy. Then, the scope of educational linguistics, Spolsky (2008) later elaborates, is the intersection of linguistics and related language sciences with formal and informal education.

One of the core themes in educational linguistics is language policy. Within language policy, it is educational language policy that they are concerned. Educational language policy forms a part of wider national language planning, focusing specifically on the educational sector as “the transmitter and perpetuator of culture” (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997: 123). Other themes dealt within EL can be specified as L1 and L2 acquisition, language choice, language and ethnicity, descriptive analysis of speech acts and discourse, educational implications of linguistic diversity, language planning, bilingual education, spoken interaction in professional settings, and biliteracy.

4.01 Subfields of Educational Linguistics

Thanks to its problem-oriented nature, educational linguistics has close links with a number of disciplines which are regarded as ‘subfields’ of educational linguistics by Hornberger (2001). This also proves that EL is an independent field, not a subfield of applied linguistics any more, but it has its own subfields. They can be tabulated as follows:

Theoretical Linguistics: It is a branch of linguistics concerned with developing models of linguistic knowledge. It involves the search for and explanation of linguistic universals. Syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics are the core of theoretical linguistics.

Sociolinguistics: It is the study of effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context on the way language is used. The chief contribution of sociolinguistics in educational settings has been to draw attention to the differences between language use in the classroom and in students’ homes and communities. Because it is important to teaching and learning, language is heavily regulated in classrooms. Teacher talk is the name given to the special register that teachers use. It is a means of inducting pupils into specific topics and approaches and imparting instruction. Like all registers, Teacher Talk has developed certain conventions and properties. It typically comprises longer and more complex utterances than the teacher expects from the pupils (Mehan, 1979).

Psycholinguistics: It is interdisciplinary in nature and is studied by people in a variety of fields such as psychology, cognitive science and linguistics. Linguistic-related areas are phonetics and phonology (focusing on how the brain processes and understands these sounds), morphology (relationships among words and their formations), syntax (how words are combined together to form sentences), semantics, and pragmatics.

Anthropological Linguistics: It is the study of the relations between language and culture, and the relations among human biology, cognition and language. It studies humans through the languages that they use.

Neurolinguistics: It is the science concerned with the human brain mechanisms underlying the comprehension, production and abstract knowledge of language, be it spoken, signed or written. Neurolinguistics has highlighted the special role of that part of the human brain known as Broca’s area in crucial aspects of human language, namely syntax: the component of language that involves recursion.

Clinical Linguistics: It is a sub-discipline of linguistics and involves the application of linguistic theory to the field of Speech-Language Pathology. The International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics Association is the unofficial organization of the field and was formed in 1991. They conduct researches with the aims of advancing techniques in assessment and remediation in Speech-Language Pathologists and offering insights to formal linguistic theories.

Pragmatics: It is the study of the ability of natural language speakers to communicate more than what is explicitly stated. The ability to understand another speaker’s intended meaning is called pragmatic competence. Another perspective of pragmatics is that it deals with the ways we reach our goals in communication.

Discourse Analysis: It is a general term for a number of approaches to analyzing written, spoken or signed language use. Discourse analysis has been taken up in a variety of social science disciplines such as linguistics, sociology and psychology. As stated earlier, it has close links with educational linguistics in the sense that language is a discourse system so it should not be treated at the level of isolated surface features.

Educational Psychology: It is the study of how humans learn in educational settings, the effectiveness of educational interventions, the psychology of teaching, and the social psychology of schools as organizations. It informs a wide range of specialities within educational studies, including instructional design, educational technology, curriculum development, organizational learning, special education and classroom management. It both draws from and contributes to cognitive science and the learning sciences. Actually, it is one of the most important fields from which educational linguistics benefit.

It is clear that linguistics and psychology are indispensable parts of educational linguistics. However, language teaching should not look to educational psychology or linguistics for revelations or discoveries on how to teach language, but should learn to utilize these disciplines to make the vast practical experience in the teaching of foreign languages more meaningful, to evolve definite principles of language teaching and consolidate them in a true science of language learning (Politzer, 1958).


The principles of Educational Linguistics got matured around 1970s by Spolsky giving references to a number of related disciplines. Giving a general framework for the practices of foreign language education, they can be specified as follows:

1. Literacy is at the core of foundations of education. Literacy can be defined as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. It involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society. For this reason, EL stresses that literacy should be in primary consideration at each and every stage of educational processes.

2. It is educational linguistics which should be responsible for L1 and L2 acquisition, not applied linguistics. As an independent field of inquiry with its own departments, journals, conferences and scholars specialized in the field, EL is the one which should conduct researches and studies specifically on L1 and L2 learning, and thus seek ways for improving opportunities in language learning contexts.

3. Verbal intelligence is one of the most-used predictors of educational success. Therefore, learners should be encouraged to have sufficient amount of linguistic competence and then turn it into communicative competence.

4. Education needs linguistics since the improvement in language skills of writing, reading, speaking, and listening can only be achieved through knowledge about language. Spolsky (1978) himself admits that linguistics is an indispensible part of language learning process. Without knowing about language itself, it is impossible to use it properly. The important point is the ‘proportion’ that should be allocated for linguistics in language learning. It should be as it is required in foreign language education, not more than that.

5. A learner-centered, holistic, humanistic, and problem-oriented language teaching approach should be adopted. Only in this way, learners’ full potential can be unearthed and they can fulfill the communicative functions of language use.

6. The use of target language in real communication should be the focus of foreign language education. Literacy in foreign language can only be achieved through the use of target language in all stages of learning, and thus teachers should create opportunities for learners to use the language outside the classroom. Especially in the context of foreign language learning and teaching, this can be managed through the use of technological devices.

7. Language education is a whole together with individials, educational setting, curriculum design, and educational language policy. Therefore, language learning process should be considered as a whole with its components and all planning should be made within this framework.

In the light of these principles, educational linguists aim at organizing classroom activities so as to fulfill basic functions of foreign language education such as literacy, communicative competence, learner-centered language learning tasks, and attempt to consider language learning/teaching issue in a holistic manner including learners, schools, curricula and national policies of the governments.


Even though it is considered as a young field, educational linguistics has been very active since 1970s in the sense that it has strong arguments related to the teaching of English as a second or foreign language.

Its emphasis on “classroom interaction” is one of them. Educational linguists think that as well as it is the core of educational linguistics research, classroom interaction is a significant part of language teaching methodology. It is also important since it is closely associated with power and control in classrooms and schools. Since the main objective of ELT practices is to be able to make students equipped with necessary knowledge of language so that they can communicate well in real world, educational linguistics’ focus on classroom interaction is quite reasonable.

On the other hand, Pica (1994) notes that educational linguistics research has shed light upon primarily two domains of practice: design and implementation of learner-centered, communicative curricula and professionalization of the classroom teacher as decision-making educator. Stubbs (1986) also supports the idea and adds that educational linguistics provides teachers with the knowledge of language itself and how to teach it, so this, in turn, helps educators tackle with English language education problems such as the teaching of vocabulary, reading and writing.

Teacher’s role is very important in this respect. As well as being a good source of knowledge for the learners, s/he should also act like a psychologist so as to determine proper applications in accordance with learners’ mood, perceptions, backgrounds, etc. Namely, s/he should be a professional need analyst.

According to EL, ELT practitioners are required to create an autonomous, interactive and meaningful language learning environment for the learners while making necessary decisions in accordance with the school and the state policies because classroom applications are thought together with its hierarchical structure in EL. Similarly, learners are regarded as the center of all classroom practices and thus educational objectives of the school and the state.

All materials are presented in a meaningful way which enables learners to see the whole picture first and then getting the necessary knowledge through this holistic structure, not in isolation. Similarly, that is why educational linguists reject segmental phonology, but creat educational phonology to be used in language education.


The recent recommendation by Fillmore and Snow (2002) that all teachers need to know quite a bit about language has revived old debates about the role of linguistics in educating teacher trainees.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the predominant assumption was that teachers were born and not made, or if they were made, they were “self-made.” Therefore little attention was paid to the idea of foreign language teacher education. By the 1920s, however, articles began to appear that outlined curricula for the training of high school language teachers. One of the problems confronting teacher education programs in the early years of the century was lack of speaking ability on the part of candidates for certification. Teacher exams were proposed over the years to ensure a reasonable level of proficiency. They were required to pursue general methods and testing courses as well as courses in the psychology of learning. As a consequence, teachers were no longer producers, but were consumers of knowledge related to language learning and teaching.

By the 1960s, teachers were expected to demonstrate both subject matter and professional competence. They were required to take courses that focused on the language itself. When linguistics courses were taught, for example, linguists in general had serious problems making linguistics relevant to teaching. Especially interesting is that in a 1964 special issue of the Modern Language Journal, a set of “guidelines” for teacher preparation was published. Despite the field’s best efforts, one problem continued to nag the profession -the low level of language proficiency among future teachers. This was due to the fact that although teachers were knowledgeable about language itself, they were not taught how to present that knowledge in communicative ways (Lantolf, 2000).

This great lack in language teacher education became booming in mid 1970s and drew special attention of educational linguists. Then they have proposed that language teachers are not –and should not be- pure linguists, thus they should learn linguistics as it is required by language education. Furthermore, EL also emphasizes that as well as language learners, teacher trainees also should be educated in a holistic and humanistic way which will enable them to teach foreign languages in the same manner, and all practices in teacher education process should aim at revealing trainees full potential in communicative competence.


While educational linguistics contributes distinctive disciplinary focus, concepts, methods and history, it also takes distinctive form in each of the following types of curriculum (Spolsky, 2008) and comes up with novel perspectives in curriculum planning.

• Skills: An economistic-vocationally oriented curriculum: In this kind of curricula, teaching aims to facilitate the acquisition of skills which are seen to be discrete or separately specific, and are taught via pedagogies that stress explicit teaching, identifying sub-skills and teaching these separately and aiming through apprenticeship to combine the subskills. For instance, it may be suitable for “language for specific purposes”.

• Eloquence: A humanistic-intellectual paradigm: When curricula are conceptualized as in some sense “humanizing”, the educational linguistics makes use of notions of eloquence, expression, rhetoric, and elevated culture. Informing learners of timevalidated canonical thought, works of art, and literature distinguishes this class of curricula.

• Virtue: Paradigms of religion or social ideology: Some curricula aim to reproduce norms of life that derive from ethnicity, religious creed, or moral ideology. Educational linguistics, in this respect, serves unique goals of teaching, content sequencing, assessment, and evaluation associated with modes of practice particular to the ideology of the schools involved.

• Nationing: The discourse of loyal citizenship to nationality-defined states: Nationing, both in new nations intent on forging identities larger than regional or local ones and in established nations intent on preserving distinctiveness, utilizes linguistic based narration, story telling about national cohesion and unity, or subliminal and continual reminders of the persistence of nationality (Billig, 1995).

On the other hand, it gave way to the emergence of Whole Language Approach in 1980s which is also called “the real books approach” since it used real books instead of coursebooks (Demirezen, 2008). Its focus on meaningful and purposeful communication in language classes enabled it to help students be at ease while communicating.

In this respect, it is not wrong to say that Ausubel’s Meaningful Learning Theory is one of the contributions of EL to the teaching and learning foreign languages. As an opposition to the traditional language learning theories, particularly Audiolingualism, it has derived from a cognitive perspective to language learning and teaching, thus attempts to find ways of creating meaningful learning situations in which learners feel comfortable and construct knowledge with their own effort.

Participatory approach is another term proposed by educational linguists which means a process through which the views of all interested parties are integrated into the decision-making process ( Alatis, et all. (1996). That is why EL benefits from a number of disciplines to solve an educational problem.

Educational linguistics also created a market of materials designed specifically for foreign language learning and teaching. Different text types and application-oriented materials became available all around the world.

Furthermore, it became influential on the emergence a number of language teaching methods such as Silent Way, TPR, content-based and task-based language teaching, which are all holistic, humanistic, and problem-oriented in nature. But most importantly, educational linguistics enabled L1 and L2 learning to be an independent field with its own research studies, approaches and applications for better educational opportunities.


Educational linguistics is a relatively recent issue that draws scholars’ and researchers’ attention from a number of disciplines and thus takes various reflections concerning its strong sides and inadequacies. They can be listed as follows:

9.01 Advantages of Educational Linguistics

• It has been understood that there is a need for more research into teachers’ explicit beliefs about, and understanding of, language in order to enable us to understand teachers’ central role as educational linguists, that is, as conscious analyst of linguistic processes.

• Educational linguists made an attempt to address a fundamental problem –the language barrier to education- i.e. the instance where a child acquires a vernacular language informally and is required by the educational system to acquire a different, standard language (Spolsky, 1974a), a problem which recurs for millions of children daily, weekly, and yearly all over the world.

• It has elucidated that education and linguistics are in need of each other all the time; especially teaching linguistics to the educators is important so that they can cope with the problems such as teaching vocabulary, reading, and writing.

• EL follows from this notion that educational linguists variously investigate a host of themes related to individuals, the institutions they inhabit, and the socities in which both are situated, all as they relate to language and education. This holistic perspective makes it so strong and successful.

9.02 Disadvantages of Educational Linguistics

• Although educational linguistics claims that it is an independent but transdisciplinary field any more, there are some other arguments which insist that it is still a sub-branch of applied linguistics. For instance, van Lier (1994) puts forward that researchers working on language learning should consider themselves to be linguists who do applied linguistics who do educational linguistics.

• In a similar way, applied linguists also claim that for a discipline to be an independent one, it has to create its own approaches, theories and methods. Therefore, they assert that EL cannot be regarded as a seperate field in this respect. However, the contradiction that applied linguistics –considering itself as an independent field- also does not have its own approaches, theories, or methods weakens this argument.

The inadequecy of EL concerning these aspects can be explained best with its being such a young field to produce its own approaches, theories, and methods. In the course of time, educational linguistics is to come up with novel approaches in L1 and L2 learning and improve current practices with more efficient and innovative ones.


Concerning Spolsky’s own words; educational linguistics starts with the assessment of a child’s communicative competence on entering school and throughout his or her career, includes the analysis of societal goals for communicative competence, and embraces the whole range of activities undertaken by an educational system to bring its students’ linguistic repertoires into closer accord with those expected by society (1978: viii).

With its roots in the controversies of applied linguistics, educational linguistics has grown into a thriving field of inquiry focused on foreign language education. Its transdisciplinary nature has allowed it to flourish in a wide range of disciplinary climates. While this wide range has resulted in an impressively diverse body of knowledge with great potential to influence educational practice, it has also made it challenging to develop a sense of cohesion for educational linguistics as a whole.

Although the question “Do we really need educational linguistics as a separate field? ” is still echoing especially at the part of applied linguists, EL has proved that language practicioners are really in need of such a distinct field so as to specifically work on the issues belonging to this particular area: foreign language education. On the other hand, this does not mean that applied linguistics is useless any more. In the case that EL becomes insufficient to solve a particular problem related to language learning and teaching, it is applied linguistics that EL will call upon. In this respect, the two are always in juxtaposition and cannot reject the presence and significance of each other.

Even though there are some oppositions concerning its independent structure, today it is obvious that educational linguistics stands powerfully as an independent but at the same time transdisciplinary discipline. This position can be summarized best with the metaphor used by Hornberger (2001): birds on a wire. He says that the shifting and repositioning nature of academic disciplines can be depicted best with this methaphor. When a new one joins their midst; if they refuse to budge, the newcomer will have to fly off again. That is to say, educational linguistics has indeed found a place on the wire amidst its peer disciplines and goes on its way with strong paces.


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