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#IATEFL – Research and Teaching: Bridging the gap

#IATEFL Research and Teaching: Bridging the gap

Photo courtesy of Mike DelGaudio

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.


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The rewards and challenges of Content-Based Language Teaching

content based language teaching and instructionAhead of her webinar on Content-based Language Teaching, Patsy Lightbown, Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Applied Linguistics), author of Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching, and co-author of How Languages are Learned, shares her thoughts on its the role in the ESL and EFL classroom.

“Content-based language teaching” (CBLT) refers to a variety of contexts where students learn both academic content and a second or foreign language. CBLT characterizes the classroom experience of immigrant and minority-language children who, of necessity, learn a new language and age-appropriate academic content at the same time. It also applies to foreign-language programs such as “immersion” and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where the inclusion of academic content increases the amount of time that students spend in learning and using a foreign language. CBLT can provide greater motivation for student engagement because lessons focus on topics that are more interesting and important than those that are typical of traditional foreign language lessons.

CBLT may be seen as an efficient way to deliver second- or foreign-language instruction. In CBLT, students do not learn a language in order to use it later to talk about new and interesting things. Rather, students are placed in the situation of learning and talking about new and interesting things while they are learning the new language. Different academic content offers different opportunities and challenges for language learning. For example, science lessons are often rich with demonstrations and hands-on activities that make it possible for students to understand, even when their language skills are limited. Lessons in the social sciences may be enhanced through the use of questionnaires and surveys, creating valuable opportunities for interaction.  Practice in mathematics can involve students in activities where multiple repetitions are natural and effective for developing fluency and confidence. Readings in history and English language arts challenge students to enrich their vocabulary and to learn more complex syntactic patterns, metaphoric expressions, and a variety of language registers.

CBLT has been used successfully in many classrooms. We must acknowledge, however, that it requires considerable effort on the part of both teachers and students.  Contrary to some claims, we cannot expect that students will acquire the new language “automatically” or that all teachers will know how to provide instruction that gives adequate attention to both the academic content and the foreign or second language itself. One important finding from the many research studies that have looked at CBLT is that students may not acquire the ability to use the new language fluently and accurately, even when they are able to learn the academic content that is delivered in that language. Similarly, some students may give the impression of easy, fluent conversational ability while failing to master the academic content that is appropriate to their age and grade level. To be successful, CBLT instruction must make complex academic content comprehensible and draw students’ attention to aspects of the language that they may not learn without intentional effort.

Finding the balance between instruction focused on meaning and instruction focused on language itself is a challenge for all second- and foreign-language teachers. It is an especially great challenge for CBLT teachers who bear the responsibility for ensuring that students learn both academic content and a new language.

Join the webinar Content-based Language Teaching on 28th – 29th October to find out more.