More on Mediation

Scott Thornbury’s post M is for Mediation  was his third bite at the same cherry. Yet again he asked: How is information communicated to teachers? , reminding us that

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

Who can blame him for not mentioning that he’d already given the ELTRIA talk at the IATEFL conference in April. So anyway, in the blog post, he went over the by now familiar ground, and finished by asking

Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? 

To me, it’s the wrong question (surely we should ask whether it’s consistent with research findings, not whether it makes overt reference to them), and most of those who replied seemed to think so too, choosing to talk about the more general issues raised.

As usual, the discussion was interesting, and, as usual, Thornbury demonstrated extraordinarily nifty footwork, avoiding treading on anybody’s toes and somehow keeping a foot in every camp. He reminded me of those in the jewellery heist films who make their way towards the prize, all the while contorting their bodies in impossible ways so as to avoid the deadly laser beams.

I’d like to pose a slightly different question:

Are there any research findings about language learning and teaching that have important teaching implications, and if so, who should tell teachers about them?”

The argument that I’ve been trying to pursue recently is as follows:

  1. A very small subset of research findings on how people learn and teach languages has important pedagogical implications that teachers should know about.
  2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it.
  3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators.
  4. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers encouraged teachers to critically discuss and evaluate the small subset of research referred to above.

1. A small subset of research has important teaching implications that teachers should know about

The example that I bang on about is research in the area of interlanguage development. This research suggests that there are stages all learners go through when learning a second language, and consequently that teachers can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. It follows that basing ELT methodology on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammatical forms is mistaken. (Note that research (see review by Norris & Ortega, 2000) also indicates that explicit form-focused instruction can be effective in promoting learning.)

A few more examples:

  • There is no evidence to support the view that matching pedagogy to putative “learning styles” has any positive effects.
  • By manipulating certain factors and conditions of oral classroom tasks, teachers can guide students to producing either more fluent or more accurate language.
  • Certain types of L1 use in the classroom help, while others hinder, vocabulary learning.
  • “Focus on form” has a better long term effect on learning than traditional “Focus on Forms”.
  • Non-salient features of the L2 are the most difficult to learn.
  • Extensive reading speeds up learning.
  • A negative attitude towards the L2 culture inhibits learning.

It’s surely a good thing if teachers are aware of research findings which have potentially important implications for what and how they teach. This is not to argue that research findings should in any way determine ELT practice, or even play a major role in it. I agree with Ur that the main way teachers learn and become good at their jobs is through classroom experience, discussion with colleagues, and feedback from students.  I agree with Scrivener that teaching is not a science, it’s an art, a craft. I agree with those who say that lots of / most of / nearly all applied linguistic research is obscure, badly-done, badly-reported, and contradictory. I agree with Thornbury that “research relevant to ELT only very rarely deals with pedagogical issues”.

But good ELT practice needs to be based on a certain understanding of how people learn languages: we can’t just ignore the question of which among the range of competing, contradictory views of language learning is the most reasonable. And isn’t Thornbury’s own outspoken criticism of grammar-based teaching, which he so tellingly caricatures as the presentation and practice of McNuggets, partly based on his view of language learning, which is in turn informed by his reading of published research? Thornbury agrees that “there are robust research findings” and says that he still holds a cognitive view of language learning, although it’s now more influenced by sociolinguistic factors. Isn’t this a recognition of the place that research plays in his understanding of language learning, and doesn’t it indicate that his critical evaluation of different research programmes influences his work as a writer of methodology texts and as a teacher trainer?

2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it

In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up with research, and it’s reasonable to expect methodology writers and teacher trainers, who, after all, get paid for giving information and advice to teachers, to do so. Of course, teachers should make an effort to keep informed themselves, but I think it’s reasonable for them to turn to mediators rather than to academic journals, and to expect those who write methodology texts and those who organise and carry out teacher training to give them a well-informed and well-considered view of teaching which takes research findings into account.

How do mediators find the relevant research? Well, that’s their job, and individually they have to decide for themselves what to do. As the four writers who replied to Thornbury’s questionnaire made clear, there are different ways of keeping in touch, which include attending conferences, networking, using social media, taking advantage of meta analyses, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and keeping your ear to the wire, so to speak. The aim is thus to stay in touch with developments, have a general feel for what’s happening, and so be in a good position to dig deeper when necessary.

3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators

The problem is that many methodology writers and teacher trainers don’t seem to share this view of their responsibilities. The impression given from Thornbury’s latest data, scant though they are, and from reading the methodology texts of his study’s participants, is that they don’t keep up to date with what research tells us about language learning, or about other areas of ELT. If this impression is an accurate one, then surely it’s regrettable, and what I find odd (though not surprising) is that Thornbury makes no criticism of what comes across as complacency. None of his participants, for example, discusses the research findings of interlanguage development in their methodology texts, or expresses any concern about not doing so. Thornbury, in contrast, has discussed these research findings more than once. If Thornbury thinks it’s important for him to keep in touch with research and to use research findings to inform his views on methodology, why doesn’t he expect the same of others? Furthermore, if Thornbury thinks that research findings call into question the assumptions underlying a grammar-based synthetic syllabus and the PPP methodology which implements it, why doesn’t he mention this when discussing his findings?

We get a hint from this exchange.

Luiz Otávio Barros: … it seems that a lot of what has been researched and discovered in the past 30 years is at odds with what teachers are expected to do in class. So, SLA research can keep telling teachers – till it’s blue in the face – that linear syllabuses, grammar mcnuggests and controlled practice with a view to proceduralization don’t work… The whole educational system is set up in such a way that these claims are hard to embrace.

Thornbury: Thank you Luiz (and lovely to be communicating with you again!) If I may quote Penny Ur here (an excerpt of which I used in my talk), because it seems to chime with your own sentiments, …….

The quote from Ur might have chimed with Barros’ sentiments, but it did almost nothing to address the point he was making. Once again, Thornbury deftly ducks controversy, choosing not to be drawn on the political issue raised by Barros, namely that “the whole educational system” has little appetite for research findings which seriously rock the boat. Moderators work for publishers and for companies. The bosses of these commercial enterprises dissuade employees from making any serious attacks on current ELT practice – witness Thornbury’s publishers making it clear to him that they’re “not interested” in his McNuggets views. Barros, rightly I think, suggests that the ELT educational system is set up in such a way that teachers are unlikely to hear about “inconvenient” research findings. They’re unlikely to hear, for example, about the research findings which indicate that a grammar-based product syllabus delivered with a PPP methodology is inefficient; or that coursebooks have serious failings; or that the Pearson Test of English is bulit on sand; or that the Common European Framework of Reference is, as Fulcher says “a prime example of in the way political and social agendas can impact on language testing, and how language testing can be made to serve those agendas”. And so on and so on. In brief, moderators, no doubt voluntarily and in good faith, tell teachers what the bosses want them to hear.

4. Open Discussion is Needed

We should fight against the way sweeping generalisations about the obscurantism of research and the practical nature of teaching are used to dismiss research findings which challenge established ELT orthodoxy. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers, plus bloggers and other interested parties, engaged with teachers in open discussion about well-conducted applied linguistics research dealing with, among other things, interlanguage development, task design, error correction, vocabulary learning, extensive reading, pronunciation teaching, and testing & assessment.


Norris, J. & L. Ortega (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50, 417-528.

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