Patsy Lightbown, Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Applied Linguistics), and Nina Spada, Professor (Second Language Education), and co-authors of the prize-winning book How Languages are Learned, look at how increasing teachers’ awareness of second language teaching research can support them in the classroom. Patsy will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2015 on Saturday 11th April.
As teachers, we base our instructional activities on many kinds of knowledge, including our own experience—not only as teachers but also as learners. Whether intentionally or not, we often teach as we taught last year (or five years ago) or as we were taught when we were students. And when we do try to teach in a different way, it may be because we were dissatisfied with our experiences—on either side of the teacher’s desk.
Research on second language teaching and learning is another source of knowledge that can help teachers shape their pedagogical practices. However, we have heard time and time again that teachers have limited knowledge of research findings, even some quite robust findings that have been replicated over many years. Teachers, quite understandably, cite a lack of time for locating and reading research that might be of value to them. Further, they often express a belief that published research is not relevant to their particular teaching situation. Some teachers express frustration at what they perceive as the overly technical or esoteric language of research reports. For these reasons and others, teachers may miss out on information that would help them in their work.
We are convinced of the importance of making research findings accessible and engaging for teachers. Here are some examples of the kinds of research findings that can inform teaching.
- In content-based language teaching students may not learn the vocabulary and grammar that are present in the language they hear and read—even when they appear to learn the subject matter itself.
- In well-designed group work, oral interaction allows students to learn from each other as well as from the teacher.
- First language development, especially literacy, is an important foundation for second language learning.
- Tests can be used to enhance learning, not just to assign marks.
- Students need direct instruction on academic language even if they can already engage in informal conversation on familiar topics.
- Learning to read involves both top down (e.g., understanding the context) and bottom up (e.g., being able to sound out a new word) processes.
An awareness of these and other research findings can be useful as teachers plan lessons and set goals with their students. In collaboration with a group of exceptional researchers with close links to classroom practice, we have developed a new series of books for teachers: Oxford Key Concepts for the Language Classroom, published by Oxford University Press. The series now has five completed volumes, with another in press and two more in development. Each book in the series reviews research on language learning and teaching in a particular domain, emphasizing studies with school-aged learners. Each volume includes Classroom Snapshots that illustrate real classroom events, Spotlight Studies that focus on research that has special importance for primary and secondary school teachers, and Activities that invite readers to extend their understanding by analysing examples of classroom interaction or samples of textbook language.