Monday, 14 July 2014

Try this! It works

One of the most frequent questions I hear is 'ok so maybe these things you write about don't work how about telling us what does work'? This question bothers me.

To some, noting that 'method X' doesn't work makes me responsible for filling a 'method X' shaped gap in the curriculum. A reasonable response to things that don't work is, I think, to stop doing them. We don't have to continue blood letting until something better comes along. Just stop.
However this answer doesn't always satisfy. The logic seems to be that  if I can't offer up something better than 'crystals in the classroom' then by god we're going to have crystals in the classroom! But things like NLP don't suddenly become effective if an alternative can't be found. It's not the least worst solution. It just doesn't work.

That said, It's not totally unreasonable, since the blog is called, 'evidence based EFL' to wonder what exactly is effective. for example, the always engaging 'teacher James (James Taylor) recently noted that even though he like me, is a sceptic, he's not entirely sure how he can make his teaching more evidence-based. He notes:

With all the will in the world, I can’t do the research myself. I would definitely encourage teachers to do their own experimental practice and investigate a particular area of their teaching, but we can’t investigate everything we do. If we want to access the research of MA students who are looking into all these areas, where do we go? Most research never sees the light of day after graduation, and if it does it’s published behind paywalls and in subscription only journals, which we can’t access and even if we could, would we have time to read them? 

Therefore, because I completely understand people's desire to know 'what works' and  also because I don't want to spend the rest of my life reading and writing about things like BrainGym and NLP (because as I've said before, anything I say or write will have little effect on their popularity) I've decided to try something new. 

I've decided to add occasional posts listing things which do 'work'. I have a feeling this might disappoint some as reality is less appealing than fantastical theories and saying 'try this! it probably works' is less sexy than shouting 'all of this is bullshit!'. If you think I'm going to say 'the correct answer is (drum roll) ...task based learning!' Then you'll be disappointed. This will be more a collection of techniques or principles which seem to have strong evidence of efficacy.

After wading through various books and journals trying to find things that 'work', I have to say two things in relation to this. Firstly, being a young field, and one with very low entry requirements, there's often very little solid evidence for anything. As Swan notes: 

We actually know hardly anything about how languages are learnt, and as a result we are driven to rely, in our teaching, on a pre-scientific mixture of speculation, common sense, and the insights derived from experience. Like eighteenth-century doctors, we work largely by hunch, concealing our ignorance under a screen of pseudo-science and jargon.

And secondly, I have to say, SLA experts boy, you don't make it easy for teachers! I'm a supporter of research. I'm on your side! But ploughing through some of the awful turgid prose that can pass for academic writing left me a tad depressed at times. If you actually want teachers to read this stuff, make it a bit more teacher friendly. Failing to do that means the space is being filled by opinion and at times, nonsense. 

This is not a job I can do by myself. As I said here, I'm looking for anyone who is an expert or at least more knowledge than most in a certain area (maybe you wrote your MA dissertation about a certain subject) to do a guest post. I've been lucky enough to host the wonderful Philip Kerr and will soon hopefully have another great post to share.

On a final note, James Taylor above encourages teachers to do research and about a year ago I wrote "ask to see the evidence and if there isn't any, why not try to make some?". I realise how daunting that may sound. but there is good news on that front too. Another James, (Pengelley this time) together with Rachael have been working on a project called 'The Scarlet Onion' which aims to:
...inspire and encourage teachers to be critical practitioners.  To offer a platform for those who would like to know more, do more, discover more about what they do and why they do it.  We want to provide a clear model of professionalism in EFL and instil the desire and ability in others to think critically, creatively, and challenge the ideas and assumptions they come across every day in their own work.
James tells me the site will be providing teachers with the tools to evaluate and even do research of their own. If everyone starts pushing in the same direction, asking questions, making research accessible on blogs and even doing it themselves, you never know, we might actually make a difference.  




  1. Many thanks for your inspiring work, Russ!

    A few random thoughts:

    MA dissertations can be anything from a report that's only just scraped through to a brilliant Distinction (assuming they've passed!). Without some sort of evaluation or peer review, you just don't know. Anyone can put a paper out there. It takes a bit more to make it evidence. So we would need somebody with the willingness and time to collect and select reports of a reasonable standard. (If that's not depressing enough, I might add that I, for one, rarely see reports of a reasonable standard that something 'works' in language teaching - and I'm including there MA dissertations, PhD theses and academic journal articles.)

    In language learning/ teaching is it really hard to show that something works - for the reasons you describe above - and it is pretty much impossible to claim anything in more than tentative terms. Unless you do super-focused super-controlled lab studies that do not translate easily into the 'real world', it is impossible to move beyond 'it may, but then again it may not'. This is not enough for teachers, who, as you say, do not have the time to plough through piles of mays and may-nots in order to make up their own minds. You and I know that somebody who claims something works without doubt is selling snake oil. For me, the solution is trying to help more people understand that. (That's what you do, but one person is not enough.) Plus getting more researchers to share their work in accessible formats, on accessible platforms. (That's what you're trying to do, but one person...) And, yes, ensuring that the work we do is of a reasonable standard. Big sigh...

    1. I think you're absolutely right to raise these concerns. obviously I wouldn't want any old dodgy MA dissy on here (like mine for example!) so there will have to be some kind of screening processes, but I'm really hopeful that someone who has say, written extensively on 'teaching listening' or something, could provide some insight into that area. I ask ex-students because I'm not sure many academics would be inclined to write something. Often they are very busy with their own research and who am I, right?

      I'm a little more optimistic about showing 'what works' than perhaps you. I know exactly what you mean, and you're right, but I think there are certain things them seem to show, at least some degree of success. But I'll probably live to regret this blog post. hahahaha (Let me join you in a sigh)

    2. Sorry, just saw this. Re 'what works', I agree with you. It depends what we're talking about as well. The evidence needed to back up a claim like 'teaching method x is better than teaching method y' would be extremely difficult to obtain, if at all possible. But it doesn't have to be such grand things. Nor tiny lab things that wouldn't necessarily have a clear practical significance. There's a lot of action research or relatively small exploratory studies that could be shared with a wider audience, for example.

      In an ideal world, academics would also blog about the research they publish in paywalled journals: I've published a research paper, I now write a summary for the general public, with a practical emphasis. But in the world we live in, there's very little time to write up research, and the System only cares about peer-reviewed dissemination, impact factors and citation counts. I really don't know who wins in this game. It makes total sense to me that (most?) research should make some sort of difference in practice, and in fields like ours that can only happen if that research is communicated in appropriate ways to the people who can actually put it into practice - i.e., the teachers. But the System doesn't care much about that, really. All this recent talk of impact, certainly in the UK, seems to me little more than lip service.

      Maybe it's a natural process. Maybe we need to go through the lip-service phase, until we can find ways to actually make a practical difference through our work, and until we can get academic prestige to be measured by the practical difference we've made. (I know not everybody would agree with me.)

    3. (I'd like to pick your brains about action research at some point.)

      I think you're right about the System. so maybe someone needs be the bridge between the two?

  2. Thanks for the mention, Russ and for pursuing this new direction. If anything, it should make us realise how little we truly know and how far we have to go.

    I love that description by Swan of us as 18th century doctors. It's a perfect comparison, and I love the imagery - I might wear a leather apron to class from now on!

  3. Hi Russell,

    I've been wondering recently whether one way of getting EFL research out to the public would be to create an open source wiki. Just like Wikipedia you could have a page on, say, "guessing from context", and then people could add and summarise research on the topic until each page was a fairly accurate and up to date resource for an approach or an activity. The page could explain what the research says, and how confident or not we could be about the effectiveness of each activity. It might be a good starting point for researchers and a decent general resource for teachers, but then it may also be a touch over-ambitious...


    P.S. Just noticed today that you mentioned our podcast on Twitter. Thanks for the constructive comments!

    1. Hi Rob,

      I think that's a fantastic idea! I'd love to help out with something like that but I'm not sure I have the time actually set it up.

      Are you on twitter?

    2. My comment has disappeared twice now after clicking "publish", so I'll see if posting anonymously works.

      I'm not on Twitter, unfortunately. Someone just pointed us in the direction of your tweet!

      I think a wiki project may be too much for anyone to take on individually. Personally I'd love to work on it, but between a full time job and studying for a PhD there just isn't the time. It might be a job for a university department or an ELT society, or any other body with a bit of funding and a few willing volunteers.

    3. I have to moderate comments to stop spam. I think someone needs to set it up and then let the EFL world work on it. It worked for Wiki. I know what you mean about having a lot on...I really do.

  4. Russell,

    I enjoy your blog and watched your presentation at IATEFL on the web. One really good book on what does (and doesn't) seem work in EFL vocabulary teaching is "Vocabulary Myths" by Keith Folse. It is a practical, accessible and interesting read. Link to main points here:

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you like it!
      I've got Folse's book and all the others in that series.

  5. Less specific to ELT, but tackling many themes that are becoming common fads at places like the British Council (21st Century Skills, Teaching Critical Thinking, Comprehension strategies) is Daniel Willingham's site:

  6. Wow! Thank you so much for linking to my article, 'Crystals in the Classroom'! (

    I wrote it many years ago - possible last century - and had lost the original. I didn't realise it was still around online. Very interesting to read it again and see that it's still relevant.

    1. It's a great article Tom. Witch Hazel is, alas, no longer around...