All posts by Achilleas

Conversations with a purpose: Reflecting on interviewing in EFL research (IATEFL ReSIG Pre-Conference Event)

The IATEFL conference in Birmingham is coming up, and those of you who have an interest in classroom-based research may want to attend the Research SIG Pre-Conference Event, which will take place on Tuesday 12th April 2016 (10:00-17:00).

In the event, Dr Steve Mann (University of Warwick) will lead a workshop that aims to help participants understand how interviews might be used in EFL research projects, and to provide practical hands-on experience about various alternatives in interview-based research. Some of the questions that will be explored are the following:

  • Do you use interviews in your research?
  • What challenges have you faced planning for and managing interview interaction?
  • What different approaches are possible within EFL research interviews?
  • How many interviews do I need to undertake and do I have to transcribe them all?

Participants will have the opportunity to raise and discuss any issues they have regarding the use of interviews in their research projects. With Steve’s help, participants will work towards developing an interview approach. They will also produce a set of questions, which will then be used for a live interview with Graham Hall, the editor of ELT Journal.

If you are involved in a project that uses interviews, whether it’s in the context of a study programme or motivated by a wish to better understand your practice, I think this is well worth your time!

Featured Image: ‘Interview’ by eelco @ Flickr CC-BY-NC

Year in Review

It’s that time of the year again, when one takes stock of the previous 12 months. This year’s post is less introspective than the previous one, but here goes anyway…

As always, wordpress has helpfully provided an annual traffic report, according to which I this blog was visited 110,000 times in the past twelve months. This is, perhaps, a surprising number considering the lack of posting activity in the summer (because I was looking for a job), and in the last couple of months (because I found one).

A large number of visitors come to this blog for the statistics content, which I continue to find both bizarre and frustrating. Other, less popular and probably better posts, that were written this year include the following:

My rant about discriminatory hiring

The position taken here(…) is that the very concept of Native vs. Non-Native teachers should be irrelevant to teaching discourse, just as dichotomies between male and female teachers, or between attractive and plain-looking ones. To quote Adrian Holliday again, these labels “really have not always been there, and we really don’t need them”.

In January 2015, I came across an article where it was argued that there was nothing discriminatory about exclusively hiring native teachers of English. I immediately wrote a brief, and somewhat angry, response here. In the post, I outlined three reasons why such thinking is linguistically flawed and ethically problematic. Despite being written in some haste, the post turned out to be reasonably coherent, and to my surprise, it led to the largest number of views in a single day – a record that would last till the end of September, when I announced my new job.

Introduction to complexity

Readers of this blog will know that I have an interest in Complex Systems Theory, and I do on occasion blog about it. In spring 2015, I was involved in organising the Manchester Roundtable on Complex Systems Theory and ELT, an informal gathering of teachers and academics that aimed to exploring how Complexity can be used to bridge the perceived gap between theory and practice in language teaching. In anticipation of that event, I wrote a short primer on complexity, which you can find here. The plan to make this a series of five posts discussing different aspects of complexity and ELT didn’t quite materialise, partly because I didn’t feel confident enough in my ability to describe complexity in non-technical terms, but this introductory post is a reasonably good entry point into complexity.

Is there a talent for learning languages?

We should not assume, on the basis of our continuing research,(…) that there are individuals who are not capable of learning languages.

Many of the posts in this blog are inspired by conversations I have with friends who want to learn more about language and language learning. This post, on language learning aptitude, or the ability to learn languages effortlessly, is a good example of such a post. It was triggered by a long conversation with a good friend, over a bottle of good wine, during which we debated whether there is such a thing as a ‘talent’ for learning languages. In the post, which summarises the better parts of that conversation, I argue that there seems to be such a thing as ‘aptitude’, and I explain what it consists of; but I also point out that it is not the most important factor determining success.

Some thoughts on teaching and testing

Another example of a post inspired by an informal conversation, on Twitter this time, was the one where I discuss the relation between language learning and testing. In brief, I argue that the two are not always compatible, and look back at a critical incident from my language teaching days. In September 2015, when this post was written, I had made up my mind to leave Greece, and some of my frustration and resentment over my previous employment seems to have made its way into the post. Such imperfections aside, I think that the content of the post is useful, and can serve as one example of how we might, ever so briefly, use professional knowledge and our sense of integrity in the interest of our students.

Looking into predatory publishing

It seems unethical to make hiring and promotion decisions conditional on a publication model that creates unrealistic output expectations for honest researchers, and profit opportunities for unscrupulous publishers.

Predatory publishing, roughly defined, is the practice of separating researchers from their money, by publishing scholarly work in journals of dubious quality. Uneven levels of academic expertise, poor regulatory practices, and gullibility are important factors in explaining the rise of predatory publishing, but they may not be the only ones. In this post I discuss how academic advancement regulations in certain contexts (*cough*Greece*cough*) tend to encourage submission of mediocre papers to low-quality journals. Although neither this post nor a follow-up outlining alternatives were very widely read, I have included it in this list because I think it is a topic that warrants reflection and discussion

And more…

In addition to the above, I have used this blog to record events and milestones that were noteworthy to me in one way or another. One of these events was the Teaching English to Young Learners panel, which I co-organised, in IATEFL 2015. You can read more about the panel members in this post, and about our talks in this one. Another one was the workshop on practitioner-led research, which I co-presented in ELT Connect 2015. You can find our slides and a handy how-to guide for planning research projects here. Last but not least, in this post you can find a copy of a chapter that I co-authored with Juup Stelma, which was recently published in New Directions in Language Learning Psychology (Gkonou et al., 2016).

I guess that’s all for this year… As always, thanks for reading, and have a great New Year!

Featured Image: Andrea Parrish – Geyer @ Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0


New publication: Intentionality & Complex Systems Theory

I am proud and happy to announce that Juup Stelma and I have just had a chapter published in New Directions in Language Learning Psychology, an edited collection put together by Christina Gkonou, Dietmar Tatzl and Sarah Mercer, and published by Springer.

In the chapter, we suggest that many activities in language teaching and learning might be easier to understand if we look into the forces that drive and sustain them. These forces, which we call intentionalities, are roughly akin to the ‘purposes’ of each activity, the reasons that make teachers and students behave together in particular ways. We also point out that teaching and learning is usually driven by several intentionalities, which are interwoven into each other. We suggest, therefore that it is useful to try to understand them through a complexity lens.

Juup and I support our theoretical argument by drawing on data from our doctoral theses. Juup describes how a group of learners in Norway got increasingly involved in a set of role-playing tasks, and engaged in increasingly more elaborate theatrics. This activity, he argues, was driven by a ‘performace intentionality’, and he discusses how it came into being, and how it eventually faltered. In my part of the chapter, I talk about how the teaching and learning activity in an evening language school in Greece was driven by what I call a ‘competition intentionality’, which emerged from the interaction with the state school system.

For those of you who find this kind of information useful, the full bibliographical reference for the chapter is:

Kostoulas, A. & Stelma, J. (2016). ‘Intentionality and Complex Systems Theory: A New Direction for Language Learning Psychology’. In Gkonou, C., Tatzl, D. and Mercer, S. (eds.). New Directions in Language Learning Psychology. Berlin: Springer.

Download Chapter

A copy of our chapter can be downloaded by clicking on the link above, and comments and feedback are always welcome!

Image Credit: adikos @ Flickr , CC-BY

So, why is there an -f- in my email?

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that my university email account contains a typo – sort of. It it, which is odd, since my name is Achilleas – sort of. Here’s what happened.

For much of the previous century Greece was a diglossic linguistic community. We had a ‘high’ variety, called katharevusa, which was used in formal contexts (and is still used, to some extent, by the Church, the Army and other conservative enclaves), and a ‘low’ variety (demotic), which was generally used in informal situations, and would not appear in written form. One of the most visible differences between the two varieties was the morphological system (i.e., the endings of nouns and verbs), where the katharevusa resembled Ancient Greek forms.

The diglossic situation was formally abolished in the 1980s, when the low variety was given official status, and the government implemented a series of linguicidal policies aimed at expunging linguistic varieties that differed from their standard of choice. However, when I was born, the katharevusa variety was still the only acceptable form in the civil service, and as a result I was registered as Ἀχιλλεύς, a formal version of the name, which is translitterated as ‘Achilleus’, and pronounced in Modern Greek as /axilefs/. Among family and friends, I was called Αχιλλέας, or Achilleas.

This mismatch was never a problem in Greece, where the two variants of the name are generally understood to be interchangeable. It was not a problem in the UK, either, as the prevailing policy is to use the name by which one is commonly known. On the other hand, the powers-that-be in Austria seem to think, not entirely unreasonably, that it could be confusing if one went about with two different names, and they therefore only accept the one that is written in my passport.

Embed from Getty Images

To cut a long story short, the University of Graz would only issue me an email account based on my formal name, in all its archaic glory. So, if you want to send me an email please make sure there is an -f- in, or else your message will be lost in the university servers (it is my understanding that you will not even get a ‘recepient not found’ message). Or you could just use my personal account.

Doing Classroom-Based Research

Last Saturday, Anita Lämmerer and I had the privilege to facilitate a workshop in the ELT Connect 2015 conference that was  jointly organised by the Sprachausbildung and the Fachdidaktik sections of the Institut für Anglistik, University of Graz.

In our workshop, which was entitled Exploring Practice through Classroom-Based Research, we made the case for practitioner-led research, as a way for improving learning outcomes and driving professional development. During the workshop, the participants and we discussed the benefits of classroom-based research, and critically examined some assumptions that might inhibit or intimidate teachers who are considering such projects. We also engaged in a number of activities intended to exemplify how a classroom-based research project  might be planned.

We have uploaded (a modified version of) the slides and a copy of the worksheet we used during the workshop. We hope you might find them useful.

We have also uploaded a copy of a handout on Classroom-Based Research that we gave out to workshop participants. It is, by necessity, a very brief introduction to a vast topic, but we hope that it might provide some helpful orientation, if you are planning a research project, or if you are supervising or mentoring teachers who have to do such work.

We are very keen on reading any feedback you might want to share about the materials. We would also especially love to hear from you if they have inspired any classroom-based research projects.

If you’d like to get in touch, you can do so through the contact page in this website, or by sending us an email at (Yes, there’s an f in my university email – don’t ask!)

Featured Image: Pencils “All in a Row”, by JLS Photography – Alaska (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0