Time for research?

teachers and reasearch

“What is the place of research-based theory in the knowledge base underlying ELT?”

A recent Guardian article addresses an oft-overlooked concern of the ELT profession: the lack of interaction between academic research and teaching practice. In tefl heaven (where celestial teachers write CCQs on their lesson plans, check instructions and keep reflective diaries) researchers would investigate issues directly relevant to the classroom. And teachers would have time to read it.

Teaching business English, lunch often involves scoffing down a sandwich in the lift then spending the next hour across the desk from a finance bigwig, stealthily removing crumbs from your suit jacket every time he looks down to do a gap fill. Teaching kids, lunch often involves stealing stray cola bottles from next class’s pass the parcel game in-between mopping up little Phillipo’s wee and turning the classroom into a magical castle. It’s no wonder teachers are loath to wade through empirical research independently.

Let’s go back to tefl heaven for a moment and imagine a place where business men no longer request lunch time lessons and little Phillipo has better bladder control. Even if teachers had more time to engage with academic research, would it really benefit their teaching? Isn’t it all just a load of intellectual thumb twiddling anyway?

The Guardian article recognises that teachers fail to see the value of research which is all too often based on the personal agenda of academics instead of addressing real classroom concerns. While the field would certainly benefit from coaxing more academics out of the ivory tower and into the classroom (better not tell them about the crumbs and the wee) there is already a significant body of research with clear practical implications for teachers. The key issue, then, is how to make the jump from journal to classroom.

The article calls for employers to set aside time and funding as part of the job description to permit teachers to study professional literature and attend conferences. Another option would be to provide in-house training aimed at making research more accessible to teachers. Encouraging teachers to critically assess empirical research would allow them to make informed decisions about their own teaching. Academic research could be an extremely valuable resource if only it addressed practical classroom concerns and if only teachers had the time and opportunities to engage with it. Tefl gods, if you’re listening, please give us a sign.



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18 responses to “Time for research?

  1. Great post! And to illustrate your point, I don’t think I’d have seen the article without the post. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  2. mrmattpieroni

    “…the bottom line has to be that for the ELT practitioner the main source of professional learning is classroom experience, enriched by discussion with colleagues, feedback from students, and – for those teachers with the time and inclination – input through reading, conferences and courses,”

    Now working in public schools, this has been my observation of why this isn’t working. Many teachers do not communicate with each other. They are stuck in their room and their ways. Any outside help or observations are a waste of their time because they “know” how to teach in “their room”.

    Even more teachers do not use student feedback. They have no idea what this even means.

    While completing my masters, I used research for classes that I NEEDED to do for my professors. Now, I keep myself in this mode and research what I NEED for my classroom. This is immensely beneficial to my teaching practices and constant improvement. I am in the minority (a very small one, I think) of teachers who do this to only help their room work more efficiently and their students achieve at the highest level that i can provide.

    If teachers were told to do this research the reaction would be:
    -“I don’t have time”
    – “I already know what I’m doing”
    – “Are we getting paid for it?” and a laundry list of similar statements

    I want to work at a merit based pay school in the future because of the extra work I put in, but until research directly effects the teachers salary, I feel there is little that will change in the short run.


  3. Pingback: Research?… Do I get paid for it? « Mr. Matt Pieroni

  4. Some great points about time and motivation. I agree that it is unrealistic to expect teachers to invest their own time and money in research if they cannot see the benefits. Making teachers more aware of the potential benefits would be a step in the right direction. However the most effective changes will need to take place within the organisation of schools. Merit based pay where teachers are financially rewarded for their time and efforts is a great idea, although as you point out Matt, this seems a long way off. Fortunately there are plenty of other ways to motivate teachers! The last school I worked in offered weekly training sessions on an optional basis. These were always well attended (despite taking place on a Friday afternoon!) as teachers valued the positive effect these sessions had on their teaching. More schemes like this focused specifically on introducing research and giving teachers the opportunity to reflect on its potential classroom applications would be a great source of professional development without too much added cost for the school.

  5. wanderingmiyagi

    Hello. I enjoy this blog as being one of the most informative I have come across. By any chance, might I ask a bit of advice from you, ma’am? I have some grasp of the English language, but while I might be considered a bit overqualified to speak it(is such a distinction exists), I know next to nothing about actually teaching the language to foreigners. Ideally, I would greatly enjoy teaching English to Mexican-American Immigrants at my local community college. I am wondering, however, about the qualifications required for such a job. I was wondering if you could tell me about your experiences in the beginning, of entering this field. Any advice you may find helpful to me, will be so greatly appreciated that my head will explode! 😀 Thank you, miss TEFLReasearcher. 😀

  6. Hello. I am stopping by to say thank you for “liking” my recent blog post and following my blog. It always gives me a bit of a thrill.

    So, thank you. 🙂

    And your site looks remarkable!

  7. Great post. I absolutely agree that keeping up with research and studying are important supplements in order to be the most effective teacher. It’s true in everything. My boy Peyton Manning became one of the best NFL quarterbacks ever not only through practice but by scouring old play books and coaching strategies. Thanks for checking out my blog!

  8. minisculegiants

    The more you know, the more things become integrated in your mind and the easier teaching flows…at least, from my perspective. Great post.

  9. Great post. I spent five years working on and developing applications and techniques to aid voice production and assist in communication/ communication teaching and for tutors themselves: basically, pretty much everyone breathes incorrectly: correct THAT and you’re half way there. My methods are drawn from practical experience and I feel should be taught to all teachers AS WELL AS learners. As I am also a professional writer, I wrote a ‘pocket’ manual on how todo so over at my speaking site – http://antimotivationalspeaker.webs.com/apps/webstore/products/show/2280293 and anyone who wants a copy from the Teflresearch site, it is yours gratis.

  10. Great post!!!! I love the way you encourage critical thinking!

  11. Great post! I would love to have the time to learn more about how to teach, however as a new teacher I struggle to find time to plan new lessons let alone critiquing my teaching style. The little free time I have needs to be switched off, or I find myself constantly thinking about teaching! Whilst I do try to implement any new ideas I come across, a lot seems great on paper, yet flops as soon as I try it in the classroom and I then revert straight back to old, trusted methods. I can see this being a reason why teachers aren’t willing to change – why change what works well?!

    • I can relate to that Cherri. It’s completely unrealistic to expect teachers to go home, pop the kettle on, put their feet up and settle down with a copy of “applied linguistics review”!

      Your ideas about trying out new tasks reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a classroom researcher. She said that researchers tend to come into the project with lots of theoretical ideas which teachers (who have the practical experience) often feel uncomfortable implementing in the classroom. This brings us back to the familiar tension between research and practice. To move forward in the industry we need to test out theoretical notions of how adults learn in the classroom: this way we can adapt our teaching and make student’s experiences as productive as possible in the little contact time we have. On the other hand, teachers know best about what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. Teaching is about people management: the first priority is to ensure that lessons are centered around tasks which students and teachers can engage with. Without this, even the best theory will fall flat on it’s face as soon as it is tried out in a classroom setting. I hope to see more schemes (preferably on the clock!) aimed at getting teachers more involved in research. This would benefit schools and teachers in terms of professional development and staff motivation.

  12. Hello Kate,
    First of all, I am sorry it has taken me ages to leave a reply.
    Your post resonated with me because it is basically my ongoing mission in life to make second language acquisition research accessible to other language researchers, teachers, and learners. I strongly believe that these groups working together can improve the efficiency of language teaching and learning. Experience has convinced me that many of my colleagues and mentors in the field of instructed second language acquisition research share my purpose and belief.
    However, there are of course some researchers who do not believe that the results of second language research should inform pedagogy. For example, some psycholinguistic researchers are driven to find out about the mental processes involved in learning another language. They are content to do their research purely for the sake of the research. Nonetheless, their work can serve as an inspiration to those of us in instructed second language acquisition research who can draw upon their findings to test potential pedagogical applications. Another camp of researchers who feel that second language research and second language pedagogy should remain separate are the researchers who fear that practitioners would be indignant about being offered advice from researchers. I can think of two reasons for this fear. First, the findings from our field often lack the robustness of findings in fields like psychology, for example, where studies are regularly replicated to ensure the same results that happened the first time will happen again. The other reason some researchers fear teacher rejection is that this was indeed a reality at earlier stage of the field’s development, and incidentally can still be seen from time to time. However, as the language teaching profession has become more of a profession, the training and certification programs have developed, and certified teachers tend to come out of programs with a healthy curiosity about the findings of second language research. In my experience, most language teachers today are not intimidated by research because they have developed their own critical abilities to make informed choices about what they wish to accept or reject.
    I am encouraged by your blog and the potential of blogging in general as a means to build bridges between learners, teachers and researchers. I believe that blogs from each of these groups could greatly benefit from the others. From the blogs of language learners, it would be excellent to hear what successes and failures they have had, and why they think that they have had them. From teachers, it would be great to hear the specific questions that they would like answered from researchers and their experience-based predictions on what those answers might be. Researchers’ blogs must draw upon what learners’ and teachers’ blogs provide. Most importantly, however, I think researchers must make the findings from their own work and the work of other researchers accessible. By accessible, I mean both in terms of economics and comprehensibility. For example, on my blog you can find a free copy of my MA thesis, and in the future, I would like to maintain the publishing rights for my own publications in the way that Dr. Roy Lyster http://people.mcgill.ca/roy.lyster/?View=Publications has done, so that those who cannot afford to read my work in journals can download a free copy from my blog. Also, I think researchers need to summarize the results of our work, so that teachers and learners who may not be familiar with the jargon and analytic methods of the field can still get a sense of what the research has found. Incidentally, one excellent resource for getting a nice understanding of the results of many studies over the past few decades is (full disclosure, my supervisor) Professor Nina Spada’s book How Languages are Learned that she co-wrote with Professor Patsy Lightbown.
    Anyway Kate, I am looking forward to following your blog, and thank you for finding me, so that I could find you. All the best on an excellent 2013 (with as few crumbs and as little wee as can be hoped for!)
    Hope this finds you well.
    Paul Gregory Quinn

    • Thanks Paul. Some great comments on the dynamics within the field: I look forward to hearing more from you on the site! I completely agree about making research more accessible to teachers, many thanks for the Spada and Lightbown reference. If you have any more ideas about summarising the results of research for teachers, or you would like to collaborate on something similar for this site, get in touch at contactteflresearch@gmail.com – I think it could be a very useful resource for our readers!


  13. Pingback: Building bridges: Language resarchers, teachers, and learners | PAUL GREGORY QUINN

  14. To some up, Minisculegiants and Will commented on the benefits of informed teaching, and how theory can enhance practice. Rick and Cherri recognised the importance of practical experience in the classroom. Paul noted that where adult second language research is less concerned with classroom implications, researchers and teachers within the ESL field can give these findings a practical application and use them to inform their own work. Paul and Cherri made useful observations about the different positions of researchers and teachers: while research can positively impact upon the classroom, researchers must pay attention to the practical considerations faced by teachers. Ultimately, teachers must decide what works best for them and their students in the classroom, ideally drawing on both personal experience and empirical research.

    Samuel, Rita, Wanderingmiyagi and Mamajoy made some great comments in support of the site.

    Many thanks for your contributions!


  15. I抦 not sure where you’re getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful information I was looking for this information for my mission.

  16. geoffjordan

    Hi Kate,

    Good post and excellent website!

    My own recently-started website is aimed at those doing postgrad degrees in applied linguistics and TESOL, and, to my surprise, most visitors are curious teachers not involved in any research. I think there is an interest in research findings among practicing teachers, but they often get put off by the tone and “density” of research articles and reports.

    Questions such as “What’s the best way to teach grammar?”; “What are the effects of different types of correction?”; “Does a “Communicative Language Teaching approach lead to fossilisation?”; “Do immersion courses work?”; How can we increase learners’ motivation”; etc. obviously have practical implications, and the tentative answers given by research needs explaining in clear terms. There are occasional articles in the journals which try to summarise research findings and their implications for teachers, but they’re not drawn to teachers’ attention enough.

    On my website, I have a series of posts and pages which attempt to do this, and I hope you’ll allow me to mention it here. The website is Aplinglinks and it’s here: http://canlloparot.wordpress.com/ .

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