Research Evidence and L2 Teaching

I have for many years been interested in one basic (but big) question: why do language teachers teach in the ways they do? This question has driven much of my work on teacher cognition, since understanding the knowledge, thinking, beliefs and feelings teachers have is key to understanding what they do.

In my discussions with many language teachers over the years, one constant has been that teachers’ explanations for their teaching are overwhelmingly practical in nature. This does not mean that teachers’ work is atheoretical or unprincipled; what it does mean is that formal knowledge (as codified in research findings and academic theory) is not seen by teachers to be an immediate influence on their daily classroom practices. Many of these practices can, of course, be traced back to some underlying theory, but such influences are typically implicit, indirect and mediated (e.g. through coursebooks) and thus not normally salient in teachers’ minds when they talk about their work. For example, no teacher I have spoken to has explained their approach to written corrective feedback by citing the extensive research on this topic or taxonomies of feedback strategies such as that in Ellis (2009). Rather, it more likely that that, although at some point in their career teachers did encounter this formal knowledge, what happens in their lessons reflects the practical knowledge they have developed through experience of what seems to work, what colleagues do and what coursebooks and curricula recommend.

So we have a contrast here between formal knowledge (academic research and theory) and practical knowledge (developed by teachers through experience). The latter influences what teachers do much more than the former. This is natural, and anyone who criticises research and researchers for not having sufficient direct impact on what teachers do needs to recalibrate such rather deterministic expectations (Hammersley’s work here is very helpful in discussing how research might relate to pedagogy).

Having said that, it is useful to consider why formal knowledge is not a source of what teachers do and I feel that the major contributing factor is this one:

Teachers’ experiences of research in both pre-service and in-service contexts fail to establish its relevance to their professional activity.

The problem is thus not with research knowledge per se but with how teachers experience it and I am firmly of the belief the belief that if teachers see research as a relevant resource, they will then engage with it more positively. The question for teacher educators, therefore, is the following:

How can research be positioned as a valuable resource (as opposed to inert knowledge) for teachers in pre-service and in-service contexts?

One basic requirement in addressing this issue is structured time and space for engaging with research. The nature of pre-service study (especially at university) means that it is easier to create conditions where student teachers engage with research. In in-service contexts, creating fulfilling encounters with research for teachers is more challenging. But teacher engagement with research will not normally occur spontaneously, and therefore structures to facilitate it (e.g. workshops, discussion groups, on-line forums) need to be created. Within these structures, here are some strategies which can have a positive impact on allowing teachers to see research as a useful professional resource:

  • engage teachers in a discussion of why a particular research topic is relevant to classroom practice (e.g. why should teachers be interested in studies of written corrective feedback strategies)?
  • present research findings as a stimulus for reflection on what teachers do and possible alternatives rather than definite advice on what teachers should be doing.
  • encourage teachers to respond critically to research rather than treating it as incontestable
  • ask teachers to collect evidence from their own classrooms and which can inform the discussion of  particular research (e.g. evidence of how teachers provide written corrective feedback)
  • engage teachers with research papers they are likely to find interesting and conceptually and linguistically accessible
  • provide user-friendly summaries of research which facilitate teachers’ engagement with it
  • position research as a resource that enhances teachers’ professional identity rather than being a threat to it (e.g. by implying that teachers should be pseudo-academics)
  • use practice as the starting point in the discussion of research, rather than working from research to practice in a way that suggests the former determines the latter
  • create structures (e.g. reading groups) where teachers select a research paper they want to read and collaboratively discuss its implications for their teaching
  • illustrate in practical terms what research implies for teaching and give teachers research-informed ideas they can take away and try out
  • expose teachers to research conducted by practitioners not just by academics.

In education generally (especially in the UK) much work has been done into understanding what factors might encourage teachers to engage more fully with research (e.g. Cordingley et al. 2005; Judkins et al. 2014). In L2 teaching, this issue remains understudied; I dedicate a chapter to it in Teacher research in language teaching while papers such as Rankin & Becker (2006) and Fenton-Smith & Stillwell (2011) are also relevant. Rod Ellis has also written about how SLA research might interface with pedagogy (e.g. Ellis 2010).

It is unrealistic to expect formal knowledge (academic research and theory) to ever become a dominant explicit feature of teachers’ explanations of their work. However, by creating suitable opportunities and positioning research appropriately in relation to practice, it is certainly possible to address the recurrent sentiment among teachers that research has no relevance to them.

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