Interview with Inge Alferink of OASIS

In this interview I talk to Inge Alferink the project manager for the OASIS Database. She tell me what OASIS is, who it is for and how people can help out.

For more information

Here are links to articles we discussed:

Interview with Chris Jones

I have been following Chris Jones on twitter for about 5 years now and always found his work interesting. He is a researcher working in corpus linguistics with a special focus on spoken corpora and instructed second language acquisition. He recently edited a book on “Practice in second language learning”.

If you would like to read more about Chris’ work then check out his page at Liverpool university or his profile at research gate.

You can also check out the other articles we mention below:

  • Burton, G. (2019). The canon of pedagogical grammar for ELT: a mixed methods study of its evolution, development and comparison with evidence on learner output. Unpublished PhD thesis, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.
  • Crewe, W. J. (1990). The illogic of logical connectives. ELTJ (44)4 pp. 316-325
  • Michel. M. (2018). Practising online with your peers: The role of text-chat for second language development. In n C.Jones (ed.).Practice in second language learning (pp.164-196). Cambridge University Press.
  • Zyzik,E ., & Marques Pascual, L. (2018). Practice with formulaic sequences: Can it promote the incidental learning of grammar? In C.Jones (ed.).Practice in second language learning (pp.55-78). Cambridge University Press
  • Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford University Press. Jones, C., Byrne, S., & Halenko, N. (2018). Successful spoken English: Findings form learner corpora. Routledge.
  • Jarvis, H., & Achilleos. M. (2013). From computer-assisted language learning (CALL) to mobile assisted language use. TESL E-Journal, 16(4), 1-18.
  • Jones, C ., & Waller D (2010). If only it were true: the problem with the four conditionals. ELT Journal, 65(1), 24-32.
  • Jones, C. (Ed.)(2018). Practice in second language learning. Cambridge University Press. Halenko, N. (2018). Using computer-assisted language tools to enhance output practice. In C.Jones (ed.).Practice in second language learning (pp.137-163). Cambridge University Press.

Interview with Carol Lethaby

I became aware of Carol Lethaby in 2015 when she presented a talk on Neuromyths at TESOL. We have since worked together on a paper on learning styles in ELT. She talks here about this and about cognitive load theory and the importance of background knowledge in ELT.

If you would like to read more about Carol’s work then check out her web page.

Or check out the articles we mention below

Learning styles in ELT

Neuromyths in ELT

Interview with Masatoshi Sato

At the end of last year Masatoshi Sato kindly agreed to sit down with me and discuss Evidence Based practice in ELT. Prof Sato is a advocate of research being used to support teaching. He has written books on evidence based pedagogy and has carried out work on teachers’ opinions of research and how it can support teaching.

Here we talk about what Evidence Based approaches mean to him, the gap between teachers and researchers and some of the problems with research.

you can follow him on Twitter here

Here are a selection of his recent papers

Motivation and vision in the classroom. TESOL Quarterly (2020)

The origin of peer feedback. System (2020)

Context matters! Context matters: Learner beliefs and interactional behaviors in an EFL vs. ESL context (2020)

ESL vs. EFL: Activity Theory. In JAL (2019)

Practice is important but… SSLA (2019)

Do teachers care about research? ELT Journal (2019)

2020 year in review

So good riddance to 2020! A year in which teachers everywhere were forced to become tech experts. I’m curious how well those talks on the wonders of tech will go down in future conferences now we have all experienced the brave new world of Zoom.

This year has also shown us the power of science at work. When the 1914 pandemic happened, there was no vaccine and 50 million people eventually died of the disease. In contrast, after 1 year there are a number of vaccines for COVID19 all being rolled out at the same time. This is because science is cumulative. We can build on what we learn in order to do things better in the future. In ELT, research is still at a very early stage. It’s tempting to make the claim that research is useless and can’t tell us anything about the classroom (and many people do). I think this is shortsighted. There are advances we can make and these advances will allow us to make other advances in the future.

We also saw some of the problems with science. Unlike more faith based belief methods it is constantly updating and changing based on findings. At the start of the pandemic masks were not strongly recommended by the WHO. Now, they are. In ELT error correction was once considered pointless and ineffective, but new research seems to indicate that this is not the case. Looking at the research one is always left thinking that results are often more complex and nuanced than we would like.

Finally, we saw that once an approach becomes tied to a political cause it becomes almost impossible to convince people of the merits or demerits of that approach. It was particularly striking this year that within the space of a week large protests went from being regarded as selfish, irresponsible and bound to spread disease to urgent and probably safe. Similarly masks became politicized to the point that for one side wearing them was surrendering your God given freedoms and for the other not wearing them was akin to murder. We need to make more efforts to bridge these gaps and talk to people in ways that makes sense to them.

Here are the most popular posts this year:

3. 5 flavours of Hangman

2. What is acquisition?

  1. Is TEFL too nice?

I haven’t really gotten on well with WordPress and I’m very tempted to move back to blogger. I have some interesting ideas for 2021, So thanks for reading and watch this space.

Is TEFL too nice?

Criticism can be hard to take. In the book “kindly Inquisitors” the author relays the story of Georg Cantor a mathematician who “lost his mind because of the hatred and animosity against him and his ideas by his teacher Leopold Kronecker: He was confined to a mental hospital for many years at the end of his life” (2014: 296) Kubota suggests that “The field of L2 education by nature attracts professionals who are willing to work with people across racial boundaries, and thus it is considered to be a ‘nice’ field”. But is TEFL too nice?

It might seem an odd question to ask, after all, how can people be too nice? For me, sometimes the desire to protect relations and be kind tips over into a kind of censorship. This happens when criticism is withheld or watered down to protect people’s feelings. Here are some personal anecdotes:

  • Before I gave a talk once, the organisers asked me to remove references to certain people in a talk they had invited me to give.
  • While writing an piece I was asked if I could remove references to authors who held the views I was criticising.

Maybe I was wrong in these situations, after all, it is entirely possible to criticise a position without saying who holds it. That said, when discussing the prevalence of neuromyths in ELT, for instance, might it not be important to note that prominent figures are promoting these things? Or is being discreet more important?

Personally I find it a little frustrating when reading an article that says something to the effect of “many believe that correction is not useful” or “some people disagree with this idea” and not seeing a link to who it is who is making these points. I would like to go away and read their work and see exactly what they say, but instead I just have to take the writer’s word for it.

Should we avoid giving this useful information for fear of offending? I tend to agree with Rauch who notes, “people who are hurt by words are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation. What is the right answer to the person who demands something because he is offended? Just this: ‘Too bad but you’ll live'”(80)

So am I for people saying whatever they want? Well, not quite…

Anything goes?

One of my ELT heroes is Mike Swan. His articles seem to cut through nonsense and provide a clear and fair examination of authors. At the same time he didn’t pull his punches and wasn’t afraid of frank criticism. However, if you’ve seen his collected works you’ll notice that the articles are prefaced with his current reflections on them. Before one of his most scathing articles he writes the following:

‘The tone of the articles was consequently excessively polemic, anti-academic, and at times downright rude. I now offer my belated apologies to the several distinguished scholars for whom I showed less respect for me certainly deserved.’ (2013:1)

Reading the essay that Swan is apologising for, I was struck by how mild it is compared to blog posts and tweets we can see daily. Swan, I suppose, belated recognised that criticism is hard enough to take without adding unnecessary venom. 

Another negative side effect of overly unpleasant criticism is that your critics can dismiss you very easily. “I don’t object to what you said, just the way you said it. Let’s discuss that instead.” This kind of tone policing has been examined by Andrew Old, who notes that the subjective nature of ‘tone’ means that “almost any style of disagreement can be objected to on this basis”. Notably though, he draws the line at insults, threats and rudeness and is quick to block those he feels crosses the that line.

An academic issue

Academic writing is often impenetrable, vague and dull. Language seem to be used at times with the purpose of confusing rather than elucidating. However, this dullness and cold objectivity can perhaps be used to temper the anger we might feel when reading a piece criticising something we have written.

Writing that someone’s view “does not seem to be supported by the evidence” might be easier to take than describing someone’s views as ‘crap’. Saying someone’s opinions are ‘moronic prattling’, while technically not insulting the person, is unlikely to lead to a productive debate. In fact, it is probably much more likely the other party will entrench their position rather than come round to your way of thinking. Sure, it’s great to get patted on the back after DESTROYING someone with FACTS and LOGIC but how much does this kind of rhetoric effect any actual change?

It can also create a rather toxic environment. If the discussion becomes increasingly extreme, only the extremeophiles thrive. Others will choose not to engage. We thus lose all but one type of voice and it becomes an intellectual cul-de-sac of sorts. 

The importance of criticism

“Controversy is good, it makes us think” Scott Thornbury,  IATEFL 2016 Plenary

Is it really a kindness to not criticise idea because you want to ‘nice’? Is it a good situation if everyone disagrees with you but is cowed into silence or should we encourage people to say what they think? What if what they think will effectively silence others? It’s not an easy question to answer.  I don’t know where the lines should be drawn and I don’t think people should have to put up with people being abusive to them. What I can say is that I think I’ve learnt far more from criticism than praise, no matter how hard it is to hear. To quote Kindly Inquisitors again “a no offence society is a no-knowledge society” (2014: 297).

What is acquisition and how is it measured?

In SLA research, one finding seems beyond reproach is that there is a set order in which students acquire grammar. This “internal syllabus” cannot be overridden and thus textbooks that present grammar unit by unit are pointless and worse ‘unnatural’, because students are unable to learn what is taught until they are developmentally ready.

The research that underpins these claims comes from three main sources. The first are the morpheme studies which attempt to emulate L1 research showing native speakers learn English morphemes in a fixed order. The second is Pienemann’s work which unlike the morpheme studies does not look at the order of acquisition of several forms but instead looks at the stages learners go through in acquiring a single form (questions for instance). The third are interlanguage studies.

Although this research is often discussed, I have found the details are rarely forthcoming. I was curious to know two things about these landmark studies. Firstly, how was ‘acquisition’ measured, and secondly what do they consider to be ‘grammar’? In this post I will be looking at the morpheme studies.

1. what falls under ‘grammar’ and what does not?

In the morpheme studies, a set of roughly 10 morphemes are usually researched. These vary slightly such as when researchers separate articles into ‘the’ and ‘a’, or look at long and short plural sounds but in general they don’t differ much between researchers. The list of morphemes include such things as plural forms (dogs), Copula (is) (He is happy), auxiliary be (he’s coming), irregular past, regular past, articles and possessive -s (John’s cat).

There is a lot that teachers would consider ‘grammar’ that is not included. For instance:

  • I should play tennis. (Modals)
  • If you like it, then buy it. (Conditionals)
  • I’ve told you already (perfect forms)
  • What are you doing? (Questions)

2. How is acquisition measured?

In the morpheme studies, a test subject is said to have acquired a grammatical form if they can produce it correctly in a test. The test, called a Bilingual Syntax Measure (BSM), is usually carried out on children and involves showing cartoon like pictures and eliciting language from the subjects. A researcher will, for instance, say ‘here is a girl, now there are two of them. So there are two _____?’ this is known as an ‘obligatory context’ as students have to use the correct form to answer.

The next stage is that researchers score the learners depending on whether they produce the correct form or not. For instance (Dulay and Burt 1974):

  • totally correct ie. “she’s dancing” (2 points)
  • half right, ie. “She’s dances” (1 point)
  • wrong ie. “She’s dance” (0 points)

The scores of the entire group are then added up and plotted on a chart. The equation used was the sum of the whole group / the number of possible points x 100. If more learners correctly produce plural -s than produce possessive -s, then the researchers claim that plural -s is acquired before possessive -s.* In the morpheme studies a form was said to be ‘acquired’ if subjects produced it accurately when elicited 90% of the time.

What did they find?

Researchers seemed to find that all students acquired language in the ‘roughly’ the same order regardless of their L1. For instance Mitchell and Myles (2004: 43) argue that these results suggest ‘second language learners are guided by internal principles that are largely independent of their first language’.


The interesting thing to notice when looking at this table is that the orders found were not actually the same between researchers, which is a little surprising for a ‘universal’ order. That said some researchers seemed not to mind and grouped the morphemes into ‘sets’ which are acquired in order.

source Krashen in Larsen-Freeman and Long 1991: 90

The eagle-eyed among you will perhaps spot that there are still some outliers here such as “articles” appearing in stage 2 yet 1st in Dulay and Burt and 11th in Hakuta.

Issues with this research

I was interested to discover, that despite the ‘Holy Grail of SLA research‘ status that the morpheme studies have achieved, they have been under scrutiny for almost as long as the have been around. Some of the criticisms levelled at this research is as follows (apologies for not being able to properly source the origin of these).

  • morphemes with different meanings (a/the) were grouped together in some studies
  • What was classed as ‘grammar’ was a very limited number of morphemes
  • most of the early research was carried out on ESL learners, not EFL students
  • The orders vary in different papers, notably Hakuta 1974 (n-1)
  • students were all grouped together to obtain results, hiding individuals or national groups who may not have followed the “natural” order.
  • the studies did not look at acquisition over time but rather just took a snapshot
  • accuracy order does not necessarily mean acquisition order
  • Students’ overuse of the target morphemes was not counted
  • The “universal order” is more accurately thought of as the “Spanish student order”

(Note some of these criticism have merit and others less. Check Larsen-Freeman and Long 1991 for a more detailed explanation.)

Notably, the claim that the order is universal has started to look suspect as L1 does indeed seem to have some influence on L2 (something that will not surprise most teachers). Luk & Shirai (2009) have argued that researchers continue to promote the order as ‘universal’ ignoring the evidence that it seems to be affected by a students’ L1. Corpus research, for instance shows that students seem to acquire morphemes in a different order. For instance, Japanese has a possessive particle ‘の’ but no plural particle and Japanese students seem to learn possessive -s before they learn plural -S (Anecdotally, this chimes with my experience). Hakuta’s study had a similar results and interestingly, Hakuta found that articles, which do not exist in Japanese, were late acquired by the Japanese student he studied.

Luk & Shirai (2009) found that not only Japanese but Korean and Chinese learners (all of who lack plurals) generally acquired possessive -s earlier and both plurals and articles ‘later than is predicted’ by the ‘natural order’ hypothesis. Other authors have noted that salience (how easy it is to hear the morpheme in input) could also play a role in explaining the order. And another possible factor is frequency, which is ‘the second most popular of the suggested causes of the L2 functor acquisition order (after L1 transfer)’ (Goldschneider and DeKeyser 2002: 29)

So the ‘holy Grail’ seems to have a few cracks in it. One author who believes that the morpheme studies have been used to make claims that they could not support is Mike Swan, who notes:

We have no reason at all to believe that the learning of most grammatical items is constrained in this way: that for yet-to-be uncovered developmental reasons, students might need to learn comparatives before relative pronouns, dativizing verbs before quantifiers or infinitives of purpose before possessive ’s. To claim that learnability findings preclude the operation of a grammatical syllabus is a large and unjustified leap across a wide logical gap.

(Swan 2018: 254)

*the research methods are actually a bit more complex than this and differed between researchers but I have simplified it for the purposes of the this post.

Evidence isn’t enough

Why do some people continue to believe that climate change is not a threat despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is?

One theory is that the people who reject the evidence for climate change are doing so because they are uninformed. The idea is that if they were only a bit more educated on science they would suddenly realise the error of their ways. This is called the knowledge deficit model.

Researchers have sought to investigate how accurate this model is. They tested the hypothesis that a lack of knowledge about climate change predicted thinking it was less of a risk. They tested subjects scientific literacy and compared that with views on climate change.

If their hypothesis were true we would expect to see that risk perception would rise with more knowledge. It would look a bit like this.

source here

In fact they found this. 

source here

There was no correlation between scientific literacy (as measured by a test) and belief that climate change was a risk. Some of those who believed climate change was a big problem knew a lot about science and conversely some who knew little about science thought the risk was great. In short, the knowledge deficit model was a bust.

However, when the researcher compared political affiliation with belief in climate change they found the correlation they were looking for. It seems that being left wing was a much bigger indicator of believing climate change was a risk and vice versa for being right wing and this was regardless of scientific literacy.

The researchers propose that when a subject, like climate change, becomes politically partisan, facts will do very little to alter opinions. David McRaney has dubbed this “tribal psychology“. When something becomes a matter of identity for your in-group, then the evidence ceases to matter very much.

Take something as simple as wearing face masks during a pandemic. A year ago it would have been hard to image people physically attacking each other over an issue like this, but here we are. McRany has an excellent Podcast on this subject. He notes that masks may now be a badge of group loyalty, like putting pronouns in your bio. These findings are especially interesting when thinking about research and teacher beliefs.

In education most people are already left wing, yet the battle between trad and prog teacher “tribes” rages on with almost daily outrages during which members can prove their group loyalty. Today, it’s language use in schools, before that it was exclusion and before that it was something else. Topics change, but the dance remains the same.

It’s very “natural” for people to pick a side and to stick to that side regardless. As McRaney notes, our evolutionary history as social animals means that group membership could have meant the literal difference between life and death. It’s also a very frustrating part of human psychology leading to irrationality, partisanship, class divisions, religious intolerance, and so on.

A large body of psychological research shows how when we form in and out groups we start to view those two sides very differently. Our side is hard done to, sensible, upstanding and decent. The other side is getting away with murder, idiotic, immoral and craven. If we make a mistake, it was an accident, if they do it was calculated. worst of all, McRaney notes that people would rather be wrong than out of good standing with their “tribe”.

If people’s identities are wrapped up in a certain sets of beliefs and if those beliefs form an in-group/out-group dynamic it is likely that everything will be viewed through that lens. it is also likely that, in this situation, no amount of evidence will change minds. A good example of this is phonics research, the results of which have been resisted for decades.

So here are some suggestions to try to avoid our natural tendencies towards “tribal psychology”. This advice is aimed mostly at myself, but if you find it useful, then great. I suggest these in the full knowledge I will probably be unlikely to follow them very well.

  • Try not to become too invested in any one side 

This is very difficult, but the more we see the other side as the enemy, the easier it is to start seeing everything through a partisan lens. Next, we may stop looking at the evidence all together and just side with our ‘tribe’.

  • Try to find things you can agree with  

Whenever possible and no matter how small it is, try to find points of agreement between you and people in your out group.

  • Try to stay agnostic where possible 

We would like the research to say “X” but it doesn’t exactly say “X”. Well, the best thing we can do is just not have an opinion. “I don’t know” is a valid opinion.

  • Be dubious of research that supports your world view

Paper finds thing I want to be true is wrong *scoff* “what was the sample size?” “Let me check the methodology section!” “This author is right winger!”

Paper finds thing I want to be true is true! RETWEET without reading! “OK the sample size isn’t ideal but it’s a promising piece of research!” “who cares what the author’s politics are?!”

  • Make appeals to people on their terms

Learning styles advocates never seem to get particularly fazed by the charge that the practice lacks evidence. They do, however, get upset by the idea that it pigeon holes students. My guess is learning styles advocates like the theory because it represents individualism and student centric learning. Questioning that claim resonates more than pointing out the lack of evidence.

Facts aren’t enough

Research tell us that the knowledge deficit model is flawed. If we can’t get people to believe in the threat of climate change despite the evidence, there is little hope of convincing them about anything else. A research based approach has to consider not only the facts that can be gleaned from research, but people’s feelings too. Bashing teachers over the head with research is unlikely to change minds but it may cause them to resent you. It’s then fairly easy for teaching experts to dismiss research as “irrelevant for teachers” and find a receptive audience.

Non evidence based teaching tips

Here are a random collection of things which I think are really important but which are not really evidence based.

5. Deal with behavioural issues as soon as possible

If you’re like me, then having a student on their phone or basically doing something distracting will put you off your stride. I think most of the time, with adult learners there’s no malice, they are just thinking about their own problems.

If something is bothering you in class then deal with it as soon as possible. If a student is bothering you, then it’s likely they are bothering other students in the class. They suffer and you suffer. I usually ask to see anyone who is doing something they shouldn’t after the class. I don’t think this has to be a difficult conversation, just “don’t do X”. Setting clear rules on day 1 is a big help.

4. use coloured paper with wide margins and light ink when making cards

It might seem a bit “TEFL” for an EAP teacher but it really saves time. If you are producing cut-ups then pre-make a document which has side margins wide enough that you don’t have cut them at all. Make the spaces between the sentences as large as possible because there is nothing worse than chopping a few words off one set. Finally, print each set on different coloured paper to make them easy to sort.

3. Everything usually takes longer than you think

I have a compulsive fear of running out of materials before the end of the lesson and I know that I am not alone. I did have a tendency to over plan for a long time and end up not getting through the material. I’m better at this now, and there are some easy ways to control the time in the lesson. These usually relate to how you give the answers (just write them all up and let the students check themselves or nominate people and have others confirm the answers). You can also, – shock horror – do activities twice if you find you have too much time. It might seem lazy, but the students will probably benefit from the practice.

(I only actually ran out of material twice in 20 years, which isn’t bad.)

2. Learn student names

I’m not great with names but I make sure that I always do this in the first class. It’s really cringy by the third lesson to be pointing and saying “you” and I think it makes the classes less effective. If I can’t learn them because there are too many students, or because I will only see the group a few times then I give them a name plate of some kind.

  1. Do the damn worksheet

This is a cardinal rule for me and yet the one that I observe the least, much to my detriment. Do the damn worksheet yourself. It’s only once you are in class that you realise that Q3 isn’t actually possible in passive, or that you can’t explain something about the grammar point you are supposed to be focusing on, or you don’t actually know why “pain” is countable in “what a pain”, or how to explain the word “innovative”, or why “try” takes infinitives and gerunds while”trying” only takes infinitives, and on and on for 20 years. It is only when you try to do the worksheet that you realise the planned activity is not physically possible or that it would take 2 hours to complete. Do the damn worksheet!

What are your basic teaching tips?