Category Archives: Researching

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

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

On Language Learning Strategies

A few days ago I attended a conference in Klagenfurt, which focussed on language learning strategies. Strategies are not really my field of expertise, so the conference was a good opportunity for me to learn more about the topic, and what I will try to do in this post is to summarise and synthesise what I learnt from the presentations that I attended.

This is, by necessity, a very partial report on the conference. Firstly, there is the perennial conference problem, that one cannot attend every presentation (is it just my impression, or are the presentations you want to attend always scheduled in the same time-slot?). And secondly, some very interesting presentations did not fit in well with the focus of this post, and probably deserve posts of their own (e.g., Stephen Brewer’s talk on the parallels between mastering linguistic and musical communication, or Zarina Markova’s reflexive account about doing strategy-related research).

In the paragraphs that follow, I will begin by defining language learning strategies; following that, I will discuss why they are important for language learning; and finally, I will present some implications for language education and research, which were brought up in the conference.

Sign writing 'University of Klagenfurt" in German, Slovenian and Sign Langauge
An inclusive welcome

What are language learning strategies?

Language learning strategies were defined by Carol Griffiths in her plenary as “actions chosen (either deliberately or automatically) for the purpose of learning or regulating the learning of language”.

This fairly broad definition encompasses quite a few behaviours (and non-behaviours), and in fact, there are references to dozens of strategies in the literature. The proliferation of strategies, and frameworks that have been used to impose some order on the chaos, can at times be somewhat confusing. In his plenary, Andrew Cohen helpfully suggested a broad taxonomy that classified strategies, according to:

  • Goal: Under this heading, a distinction was made between strategies that facilitate learning (e.g., identifying and recording new words), and strategies that facilitate performance (e.g., retrieval and communicative strategies)
  • Function: This heading was used to classify strategies under sub-headings such as cognitive, affective, meta-affective, social, and more.
  • Skill: This heading referred to whether the strategies focussed on listening, speaking, reading or writing.

An important point that was iterated several times in the conference was that the use of strategies is a situated experience. That is to say, both the choice of strategies, and their effect depend on a number of factors pertaining to the user and the communicative situation. Yu Tina Yang, who reported on a study with Native Speakers of English learning Chinese, concluded that the use of strategies was affected by the nature of the task, the learner’s background knowledge and individual differences (e.g. different needs and priorities). In similar vein, Griffiths suggested that the use of strategies depends on the task and on individual characteristics, such as motivation, beliefs about oneself and about the language learnt, and on the learner’s ability to work autonomously. On the other hand, she suggested that research on the effects of age, gender and learning style differences has been inconclusive. The comments made by Griffiths seem to be consistent with a study reported by Vee Harris and Michael Grenfell, who compared 120 students from inner-city and suburban schools in the UK, and found that while gender did not seem to have any effect into the frequency of strategy use, but motivation did.

One final observation about strategies, which was raised by Sarah Mercer, is that they seem to have a recursive effect on shaping the context out of which they emerged. What this means is that it is perhaps counterproductive to think of strategies and context as being conceptually distinct. Rather, the context appears to be in a constant state of flux, and this dynamism seems to be sustained, among others, by the learners’ use of strategies. This is important to bear in mind when thinking about how to research strategies, as we need to be sensitive both to the ways in which each language learning situation is unique, and to the ways in which the situation constantly changes in response to the use of strategies.

Why are strategies important?

Most talks in the conference were premised on the belief that the use of language learning strategies is associated, in one way or another, with successful language learning and use.

For instance, Carol Griffiths pointed out that the frequency of strategy use was associated with successful learning; that successful learners tend to use strategies more frequently than less successful ones; and that successful learners often know how to orchestrate their strategy repertoires to address specific language problems.

Christina Gkonou used empirical data to show that highly anxious learners were able to deploy strategies such as positive thinking, relaxation techniques and actively seeking support from their peers in order to regulate their anxiety in language learning situations.

Harris and Grenfell also showed evidence that learners who exhibited persistence were prepared to take risks and tolerated ambiguity in communication tended to make stronger gains in language learning, compared to those who gave up easily, were risk averse and for whom ambiguity triggered self-doubt.

What are the implications for language teaching?

Several speakers suggested ways in which the findings from strategy research could be used to inform language teaching practice. The most important implication, raised by Griffiths, is that strategies are teachable; therefore if we make an effort to teach strategies, and if we encourage their use in a classroom context, this could make language learning more effective.

Cohen also discussed this point at some length in his plenary, where he suggested making students more aware of the strategies that are available to them, conducting strategy-based instruction, and even formally assessing strategies in language learning settings. He also suggested that teachers can help learners select appropriate strategies, by making themselves aware of their learners’ preferred strategies, linguistic proficiency, cultural background, motivation and more – although that raises the question of how feasible such demands might be.

Perhaps more pragmatically, Harris and Grenfell noted that bilingual students seem to use language learning strategies more effectively, and suggested capitalising on their expertise, particularly in large multi-ethnic schools. They also noted that, according to their research, motivation among UK students seems to plummet at the age of 12-13, so it would be sensible for strategy-based interventions to focus on that age group.

Another concrete suggestion was made by Gkonou, who recommended that interventions inspired by cognitive psychology could be used to increase self-regulation and enhance the students’ emotional intelligence.

What are the implications for research?

Some of the most important points raised in the conference pertained to questions such as what research should be done on strategies, as well as ‘how’ and ‘why’ to research the topic. Perhaps the most frustrating of these was made by Peter Gu, who reported on a large-scale literature review of studies conducted in China, to conclude that while a large repertoire of strategies had been identified, the real world impact of this research has been limited, and researchers are a fault for this unfortunate situation. Among the problematic aspects of research that he identified was the fact that research is often published in journals that are inaccessible to teachers, and there has been little effort to connect such research to training materials and procedures. Although Gu was discussing Chinese educational research, his remarks were met with knowing nods among the audience. I, for one, was frustrated by a number of studies in the conference, including nation-wide surveys involving thousands of students, the cost and effort of which seemed to be quite disproportionate to their social utility.

At the end of the day…

I left the conference in Klagenfurt knowing much more about strategies than I did before I went there, and with a sense of respect for all the good work that is being done in the field. However, I could not help fighting back the impression that arguing too strongly for Strategy-Based Instruction could be placing one demand too many on teachers, who are already being held accountable for more aspects of learning than is reasonable. At minimum, it seems to me, teachers should not be expected to tease out the relevance and implications of studies that do not make an effort to critically examine how they might influence practice. To argue that there is a need for more, and better, use of language learning strategies in the language classroom is perhaps useful, but what we really need to be doing is exploring is which strategies work where, and why. These were questions that have not been consistently addressed in the literature or in the conference, but it seems that the language learning strategy research community is reorienting itself towards this direction, and I think that it is a very useful redefinition of focus.

How can complexity inform ELT? Diane Larsen-Freeman has some ideas

Yesterday, I blogged about this symposium that aims to explore the ‘connectivities’ of ELT, i.e, the ways in which ELT bridges languages, cultures and disciplinary boundaries. The more I think of the symposium topic, the more interesting it seems; but at the same time, I am becoming increasingly conscious that ELT theory has perhaps failed to provide a convincing account how to straddle the faultlines that run across the field.

And this reminded me of a video I watched recently, where Diane Larsen-Freeman, the co-author of Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, discusses complexity theory, and the ways in which it can help us to think beyond the dichotomies that are somewhat too prevalent in ELT theory. I’ve embedded the video below and written up an overview, in the hope that it may be of help in case anyone is interested in preparing an abstract for the symposium (or if you just have a general interest in how complexity can inform ELT).

The video

Just to provide a brief summary, Larsen-Freeman starts by defining complex systems as systems that are made up of many interacting components, which produce higher-order phenomena through their interaction. She uses a bird flock as an example of a complex system: when you approach a feeding flock of birds, they all rise in unison like a single super-organism, and perhaps unexpectedly, they evidence coordination despite the fact that there is no central organiser.

She then goes on to point out that complexity can help to challenge dichotomies that have pervaded our thinking about English Language Teaching, such as process vs. product, form vs. meaning, etc. She argues that while these dichotomies often provide us with useful heuristics, but can unhelpfully obscure any connections between the phenomena they describe.

With this in mind, she suggests that complexity can offer a way to look into the connections between three dichotomous pairs that come up often in the ELT literature:

  • grammar process & product: Complexity helps us to understand how grammatical regularities originate in language use, rather than from the top-down imposition of formal rules. Emergent regularities then become sedimented into patterns, through a process of ‘grammaring’, and it is these patterns that then constrain future use.
  • lexis & grammar: This dichotomy has already been challenged by empirical work in corpus linguistics, which has raised awareness of lexico-grammatical phenomena. Lexico-grammar ranges from fixed phrases to semi-lexicalised patterns, and complexity theory can help to account for their use.
  • learners & learning: Larsen-Freeman cites evidence from emprical research including her own, which have suggested that while learners share a common learning process, they also go through unique developmental trajectories. In this case too, complexity can help us understand how the trajectories interrelate with shared learning processes.

Larsen-Freeman concludes her talk by suggesting some implications of these insights for English Language Teaching. For example, she suggests using iterative learning processes, that allow for creative repetition of language. She also recommends creating affordance-rich learning experiences, from which each learner might learn in different ways.

A word of caution

When engaging about a new, analytically powerful, and somewhat broad theory such as complexity, there is a danger of believing that this is the ‘correct’ way of thinking, and that previous approaches were ‘wrong’. I would argue that complexity is neither the ‘right’ way to thing about ELT, nor is it ‘wrong’; it is just one tool, out of many that make up our analytical toolbox. There are times when using complexity may not be the most appropriate analytical choice – to build on the toolkit metaphor, this might be like using a spanner to hammer a nail on a wall. There are other instances though, for which complexity is ideally suited to generate new insights, and I would argue that exploring the ‘connectivities’ across ELT theory one of them.

Featured image credit: Fractal flame (Wikipedia) CC BY-SA

Tissue rejection

It seems that it’s been a while since I wrote an ‘Asked and Answered’ post, but here’s an interesting question that found its way into my inbox:

What is meant by tissue rejection in language teaching methodology?

‘Tissue rejection’ is an evocative metaphor that was used by Adrian Holliday (1992) to describe what happens when a teaching method, which is known to work in a particular educational setting, is introduced into a different setting where it fails to catch on.

In Holliday’s early writings, a distinction was made between what he called BANA and TESEP models of instructed language learning. In BANA (British, Australasian and North American) settings, learning tends to take place in private language schools or language learning centres affiliated to universities, and there is often ‘relatively clear contract between institutes and mainly adult groups who come specifically to learn English’. By contrast, in the TESEP model, derived from the words Tertiary, Secondary and Primary, language learning does not usually have an instrumental objective (Holliday 1998: 12). Holliday has since moved on from this rigid binary distinction, but I will continue to use it in this post because it helps to more clearly illustrate the ’tissue rejection’ metaphor.

Each of these two models has evolved different methods, which are in line with local cultural expectations, learning materials and resources, classroom arrangements and so on. For instance, BANA education is often underpinned by what Holliday defined as the ‘learning group ideal’, which sets the conditions for ‘a process-oriented, task-based, inductive, collaborative, communicative English language teaching methodology’ (ibid: 54). TESEP educational settings, on the other hand, might privilege a more traditional, transmissive, form-focused approach to language learning, which is closer to the norms of mainstream education in those settings.

The problem, Holliday argues, is that there is a tendency for TESEP to be perceived as less-than-effective, and the remedy is thought to be the adoption of BANA models. This is, in a sense, similar to a situation where a patient undergoes an organ transplant. However, when such innovations take place, we do not (and cannot) replicate the entire BANA model in the new setting. Rather, what is transferred is a limited selection of methods, which often do not fit very comfortably in the new context where they are transplanted. The new method (the ’tissue’), which was effective in its original setting, then becomes a source of disruption in the new setting.

Tissue Rejection
Figure 1. Relative positions of the language learning ideal in different environments (from Holliday 1994: 105)

A common scenario of ’tissue rejection’ is when a language teacher tries to introduce pair-work or group-work activities in a class where learners have been accustomed to working individually, under their teachers’ guidance. In such a case, it’s likely that the learners start engaging in off-task behaviour, or become disruptive; fellow teachers might complain about the noise levels in the language class; and parents might question the language teacher’s professionalism. The key thing to remember in this case, is that the problem does not stem from the teachers’ classroom management skills. Rather, it is rooted on the mismatch between the culture from where the method originated, and the culture where it is being implemented. Returning to Holliday’s metaphor, it is similar to what happens when a patient’s immune system attacks an otherwise perfectly good organ that has been transplanted into to said patient’s body.

The ’tissue rejection’ image is a powerful metaphor that helps us to understand the social and cultural intricacies involved in teaching English worldwide. Although the premises on which it was originally grounded (i.e., the existence of two incompatible English Language Teaching models) have given way to more nuanced thinking, the spectre of tissue rejection is still relevant in at least two ways. Firstly, it highlights the need for language educators to be aware of, and sensitive to, the subtleties of local educational cultures. And secondly, it serves to remind us of the complex, and often unpredictable, ways in which different cultures of learning interact.

Featured image by Rob Ireton @ Flickr, CC BY