Tag Archives: ELT

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

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 Achillefs.Kostoulas@uni-graz.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

Call for papers: 37th TESOL Greece Annual Convention

The 37th Annual Convention of TESOL Greece will take place on the 19th and 20th March 2016, in the Goethe Institut in Athens (Omirou 14-16). This year’s convention is titled Join the Education R-Evolution and it aims to provide a venue for discussing what techniques, methods and practices could be considered ‘revolutionary’ in ELT, and “how to merge  teaching techniques and methods with practices which have “evolved” with the advent of educational  technology”.

Confirmed plenary speakers include:

  • Misty Adoniou (Senior Lecturer, University of Canberra)
  • Jeremy Harmer (author, among other things, of The Practice of English Language Teaching)
  • Alan Maley, (series editor for the OUP series Resource Books for Teachers)
  • Carol Read (Acting Vice President of IATEFL)

Call for papers

Submissions are invited for what are described as ‘r-evolutionary’ ideas on topics including sourcing course content, catering to learners’ individual needs, increasing learner and teacher motivation, fostering teacher and learner autonomy, creating a supportive learning environment and implementing effective teaching practices.

Proposals can be submitted online, by 4 December 2015.


I think this is a wonderful opportunity for ELT professionals in Greece to connect and discuss new ideas in the field. It is noteworthy to see that such practitioner-driven initiatives, which go a long way towards counterbalancing the inertia of Greek academics who pretend to work in the field.

Featured Image by Dungodung (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently Read: Drunken Aussies, Upgrading to PhD, and the REF

I’ve been in my new post in Graz for a month now, and life seems to be settling back into a pattern of regularity. This means that I now have time to read more broadly about things academic and professional. What follows is a selection of highlights from last week’s readings, which I found interesting.

David Crystal on ‘drunken Aussie’ accents

This story was quite widely circulated on social media last week, so chances are that you may have already come across it, but it’s too good not to quote. Apparently, David Crystal was recently asked to comment on a report that Australian English derives from the drunken speech patterns of convicts exiled to Australia by the British justice system. According to this post in his blog, he was not impressed:

I commented, all right. I used an ancient linguistic technical term: it’s complete bollocks. Rubbish, I added, helpfully. That wasn’t enough, it seemed. I then had to spend the best part of an hour doing my best to persuade the journalist, who had obviously fallen for this story hook, line and sinker, (a) that it had come from an Australian academic, Dean Frenkel, who, though described as a ‘speech expert’, doesn’t seem to have any backround in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics  […] Was my long conversation with the journalist worth it? Not in the slightest. When the article appeared, she quoted a couple of lines from me about the diversity of accents in the UK, and allowed the story to come across as if it were gospel. ‘So if the Aussie accent is down to booze, why do other parts of the world speak English so differently?’ The word ‘rubbish’ didn’t appear at all. Nor the other word.

This incident may be worth bearing in mind when reading ‘science’ journalism.

More to read: Incidentally, here’s some advice on dealing with journalists, in case you are asked to weigh in on a topic.

Thinking about the lessons we teach

Moving from linguistics to ELT, Sandy Millin has written a very useful contribution for the British Council TeachingEnglish blogs section, in which she suggests questions that we can use when reflecting on any lesson we have just delivered lesson. You can read the full list by following this link, and here’s a sample to persuade you to visit:

  • What did the students know by the end of the lesson that they didn’t know at the start? Is that what I expected them to learn?
  • What did I learn about my students today?

More to read: As some of you may know, Sandy Millin also owns an excellent blog where she shares thoughts about ELT. I strongly recommend following it, if you aren’t subscribed to it already.

Women in ELT

Some of you may recall a controversial talk delivered in IATEFL 2015 by Russ Mayne and Nicola Prentis, where they argued that women are underrepresented in the top of the ELT profession. As these things tend to do, the talk sparked some debate, and the thesis put forward by Mayne and Prentis did not seem to be unanimously accepted. Regardless of how one positions themselves on this debate, I think there is much value in a recent initiative by Mayne and Prentis:

While we think it’s certainly possible to find female speakers in a profession largely made up of them, it might be true that there isn’t one easy place to find who they are and what they speak about. We want to provide that reference and compile a directory of women who speak at conferences, or would like to, and their availability and areas of interest.

We can contribute to this directory by adding the names of female speakers who are interesting to listen to. The contact form, and the full text describing the initiative can be found here.

More to read: Some reactions to Mayne and Prentis’ talk included posts by Scott Thornbury (P is for Power), and Steve Brown (He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!).

Upgrading to a PhD

And here’s something for those of you who are working towards an academic qualification. Rachel Handforth, who is doing her PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, has shared some interesting thoughts about what they call the ‘upgrade’. This is an variously-named interim examination held in most UK universities early in the PhD process (in Manchester we used to call it the ‘progression panel’, although I think this has changed now).  It can be a stressful event, and Rachel’s post helps to demystify it. She also makes the following useful remark:

For those of you who are concerned about the upgrade, try not to worry too much. Even though everyone had told me that it would be straightforward, I worried and prepared and moaned about it anyway- but it really was fine in the end. Have confidence in your work and faith in your ability to justify what you’ve done. And for those of you who have recently passed the upgrade, take this opportunity to celebrate. In the PhD you don’t get many formal milestones, so make the most of the chance to enjoy your achievement, and reflect on everything you’ve learned so far.

More to read: Many members of our PhD community at the University of Manchester have described their experience of preparing and passing the Progression Panel. The Language Teacher Education Researcher Network blog has accounts by Bona Maandera, Susan DawsonSutraphorn Tantiniranat and Siti Fitriyah

Kant and the REF

And, closing this week’s collection, here’s an article from the Guardian comparing the modern university to its past incarnations. The article looks into the scholarly output of Immanuel Kant, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, and examines how well they would do in present day assessment exercises, such as the Research Excellence Framework (or REF). Here’s Kant’s assessment:

Immanuel Kant might look worthy of the nod – his three Critiques shaped a lot of the philosophy that came afterwards. However, those works were preceded by an 11-year hiatus in which he published nothing whatsoever – which means there would have been an entire Ref (sic) cycle for which he would not have been eligible. We may presume that his justification for this career break – that he had used that time to wake up from his dogmatic slumber – would have cut little ice with his (admittedly fictional) research coordinator.

More to read: Criticisms about the limitations of the REF abound in the web. Here’s a selection of reactions published in Times Higher Education, the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog and the Guardian.

Featured Image: ‘Reading in the park’ by Vincent Brassinne @ Flickr, 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.