Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Misapplied Linguistics - Report on Leo Selivan's Plenary Talk

(This is a blog post that Leo Selivan had written on the topic of Misapplied Linguistics for Russell Mayne's blog. The original post can be found on the following link:

Nicola Prentis once described her first experience of attending IATEFL as being in ELT groupie heaven.  Last year I had a similar experience while attending for the first time the AAAL (American Association of Applied Linguistics) convention – I felt like an Applied Linguistics groupie. Where else would you get to sit in the same row with both Ellises (Nick and Rod) and with Patsy Lightbown one row behind you? All the names a diligent MA TESOL student would know from their readings were there in the flesh.

Unfortunately, my attendance of AAAL also confirmed my belief that the gap between ELT theory and practice is growing wider and becoming more difficult to bridge. For the past few years, AAAL, which started as an offshoot of TESOL, and TESOL’s own convention have been conveniently held back to back in the same location (in Toronto last year). This geographical and temporary proximity presumably gives professionals travelling from all over the world an opportunity to attend both events.

It seems that very few actually do so. Out of 10 or so attendees from my home town Tel Aviv that I ran into at AAAL – all college and university lecturers (involved in undergraduate TEFL education) – none were staying on for TESOL, which may be regarded as “too practical” and lowbrow by the academia. “Looking down on us, ‘commoners’, from the Ivory tower”, I remarked ironically to one academic acquaintance I bumped into at AAAL, a former high school teacher, to which she replied, “The climb was too steep to look back down now”.

But this is, of course, anecdotal evidence, and since this blog is dedicated to questioning accepted views and practices using solid, substantial evidence, I will now turn to such.

Case in Point No. 1:
One thing that contributes to the divide between academia and practice is the abstruse language and incomprehensible jargon used in academic writing. Have you ever seen an article in an applied linguistics journal dealing with “lexical chunks”? Probably not, because scholars opt for “formulaic language”, a term little known to EFL teachers. Grammar teaching is referred to by applied linguistics as “focus on form” with both form (how a structure is formed) and function (and how it is used) subsumed under the unhelpful term. “Teaching” is disguised as “instruction”, which always confuses my non-native speaking teacher trainees, and "classroom” is referred to as an “instructional setting”. No wonder much published academic research makes little sense to practitioners.

Take, for example, the unclear definition of incidental vocabulary learning.  I am sure, to the reader “incidental” means encountering words in context while reading or listening and not as part of a vocabulary exercise.  Yet, in second language acquisition (SLA) research literature, “incidental learning” is a different construct, often contrasted with “intentional” with the latter defined as an activity geared towards committing lexical information to memory (Hulstijn 2001). In L2 vocabulary studies, in particular, learning is considered intentional when the subjects of an experiment are warned of the upcoming test, i.e. told to go home and memorise the items. 

This effectively renders most vocabulary practice, such as gap fills, matching exercises and other activities you might do in class or find in coursebooks incidental, because they merely provide exposure but do not require the learner to commit new vocabulary to memory. The dubious incidental-intentional dichotomy has been addressed by Anthony Bruton in an article in TESOL Journal (Bruton et al, 2011), where he called on researchers to use more transparent terms. For example, “deliberate / not deliberate” or “intentional / not intentional” would be a better choice of terms to distinguish the different kinds of learning.

Case in Point No. 2:
One of the researchers I was really looking forward to meeting at AAAL was Stuart Webb, who is known for his rigorously designed studies on L2 vocabulary learning, and often getting his subjects to take a battery of 10 (!) different tests in one sitting to measure various aspects of acquisition of new words. Imagine giving your students 10 different exercises with the same words - in a row!

In one of his studies (Webb 2007), a group of learners was presented with new words in contextualised sentences and the other group the same words with their L1 equivalents or, as SLA researchers prefer to call it, “word pairs” (please refer to Section 1 for discussion on misleading terminology). The results showed that presenting new words in context is ineffective because learners can easily, and more efficiently, learn words with their L1 equivalents.

However, given the nature of the target words in the study, the finding is not surprising. After all, do you need much context to learn the word “locomotive”?  But, say, the word “train” had been chosen instead, and, more importantly, learners had been asked to use the target items (i.e. write sentences with new words), I am sure, the findings would have been quite different. The linguistic context might have come in handy then because learners would have needed to know: 

get on/off the train, catch the train, go by train etc

to be able to use the word “train” appropriately.  

When I asked Stuart Webb about his diminishing the role of context, he seemed a bit baffled at first and could not understand what study I was referring to. When it finally dawned on him, he clarified that the study in question was one in a series of papers published in various journals (as it is often the case with PhD dissertations) and, being just one piece of the puzzle, may not give the full picture.
I re-read the article and found this acknowledgement hidden in the Limitations section:

Richer contexts may show that context has a greater effect on vocabulary 
knowledge than was found in this study.

Not only does the study support the use of context, it actually claims that more or better context might be necessary to learn new words. But if taken at face value, the study can be misinterpreted as a claim that context is not important for vocabulary learning. Indeed, I have seen a conference presentation claiming just that and citing Webb’s study. This is what I would like to turn to in the next section.

Case in Point No. 3:
It’s all very well blaming the academia for the theory-practice chasm but criticism can equally be directed at practitioners themselves. Many reasons can be given to explain why teachers do not consult the research literature which could inform their classroom decisions. Apart from inaccessible language discussed above, the reasons can include a lack of time or lack of incentive (see this article by Penny Ur).

But is it really the role of teachers to read research? After all, there are teacher trainers, coursebook writers, authors of teacher’s handbooks, conference, all of whom are probably in a better position to translate research into clear methodological guidelines?  In other words, those who act as mediators between SLA research and ELT pedagogy. Unfortunately, mediators do not always take on board pertinent research findings (see for example my post on teaching words in semantic sets) or, more disconcertingly, misinterpret or misapply them.

At one of the recent IATEFL conferences, a well-known presenter, in fact, one of the leading figures in the ELT world, questioned the validity of highlighting and underlining as useful learning strategies. The evidence that was cited in support of the claim comes from Dunlosky et al.’s study (2013) which, as it turns out, was conducted on native English speakers who were not even foreign language learners – they were learning content subjects, such as biology or history. 

Clearly, there is a difference between the underlining and highlighting of portions of a history textbook to be learned and marking lexical chunks which are worth remembering or grammatical structures which merit attention. If anything, SLA research considers underlining or highlighting, alongside other attention-catching techniques, as one of the ways of making linguistic input more salient. Such input enhancement has been shown to induce noticing and arguably aid acquisition of new linguistic forms. (Jourdenais et al 1995, Simard 2009)

In addition to researchers and practitioners attending and presenting at each others’ conferences, how can each party contribute to bridging the divide between academia and the classroom? I would like to see more research conducted on pedagogical issues that practitioners seek answers to and not on what is easy to research (in other words, more on “catching the trains” rather than “locomotives”). I think it is the role of ELT methodologists, teacher educators and coursebook writers to evaluate relevant research and its applicability, and translate it into pedagogical principles.

At the same time, teachers would do well to read blogs that connect practice with theory in an accessible way, such as Scott Thornbury’s A to Z of ELT, Rachael Roberts’s ELT-resourceful or this very blog you’re reading now. Thank you, Russell, for inviting me to contribute to it!

The full and slightly modified version of this article will be published in Modern English Teacher 25(3)


Bruton, A., Lopez, M. and Mesa, R. (2011) Incidental L2 vocabulary learning: an impracticable term? TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 759–768

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., and Willingham, D.T. (2013) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58
available from

Hulstijn, J.H. (2001). Intentional and incidental second language vocabulary Learning: a Reappraisal of Elaboration, Rehearsal and Automaticity. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and Second Language Instruction (pp 258-286). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jourdenais, R., Ota, M., Stauffer, S., Boyson, B., & Doughty, C. (1995). Does textual enhancement promote noticing?: A think aloud protocol analysis. In R. Schmidt (Ed.), Attention and awareness in foreign language learning (pp 183-216). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.

Simard, D. (2009). Differential effects of textual enhancement formats on intake. System, 37, 124-35

Ur, P. (2012, October 16). How useful is TESOL research? Guardian Weekly. (Learning English).

Webb, S. (2007). Learning word pairs and glossed sentences: The effects of a single context on vocabulary knowledge. Language Teaching Research, 11, 63-81

Photos from Leo Selivan's Plenary Talk

                                                                                                                Photo by Maria Theologidou

                                                                                                                                              Photo by Efi Tzouri

                                                                                                                               Photo by Efi Tzouri

Interview with Leo Selivan by Maria Theologidou

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