Theory in practice

It seems that quite a few language teachers around the world don’t really see the relevance of SLA research or linguistic research in general to the language classroom.

I think that this research is relevant and that learning something about it can make a big difference in the way we teach. We all have theories of language and of SLA, whether we are aware of them or not. To a large extent, these theories govern our teaching methods. So much the better if our personal theories are based on objective research and reasoned argument.

There is a good discussion of this, with several differing viewpoints, here:

Personally, I found SLA classes to be full of ideas that are pretty much common sense. There was very little I took from these classes that I didn’t already think about second language teaching. I did find some really nifty ways of articulating what I thought, but very little I read or heard in lecture was what I would consider a revelation.

Teachers can discover these principles without taking classes. 20 years of research and a doctoral dissertation point out what a run-of-the-mill instructor may clue into after a couple years of teaching. For years teachers have been discovering how to teach through the process of trial and error, and sometimes a good teacher passes on this understanding so the next teacher doesn’t have to spend as much time learning what works.

SLA theory is often this sort of experience taken and distilled. It’s reformulted and written in academic language. It can then be applied by some new teachers learning to teach, but I believe you could get more by observing what really works from an experienced teacher who has learned to use the principles in their teaching already.

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say. I believe SLA theory can be helpful, but seeing good pedagogy in practice is better than hearing theory from a book. You don’t even need to hear the theory to understand the principle if you see it at work.

Thanks for the reply Puiwaihin. Interesting points.

The topic title I chose was misleading, sorry. I wasn’t really talking about theory so much as decent research; research based on methodology comparable to that in other areas of psychological study.

Experience is of course extremely important in teaching: not just number of years but what you have done in terms of reflection and efforts to improve. Learning from others is very valuable. Trying to get an idea of relevant research can also help in this process, and research data do not always confirm “common sense”.

An obvious example is the audio-lingual method. For quite a few years this was seen as common sense, but as the science of SLA research developed, it was discredited. Despite this, there are still some experienced teachers who insist on using the audio-lingual method, and many of their students do manage to learn something. The question is: would their students learn more quickly, easily, and thoroughly if they were taught using methods that emphasised comprehension and communication? The evidence shows that they would.

Things have progressed greatly since the heyday of AL and it might be a fair assumption to say that the average language teacher is more effective than the average teacher in the 60s. But many issues are not at all clear-cut and it can be very valuable to read up on relevant research. Two of many controversial issues are the existence or not of a “critical period”, and whether systematic, intensive phonics, or just phonics basics, should be taught first. Knowledge of the former issue can help in encouraging adult students, and the latter is of course very important in deciding how best to teach kids to read.

I recall that you’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject of explicit grammar teaching. Much of the debate hinges on research evidence. A crucial issue is the existence or not of a natural order of acquisition of grammatical morphemes. Krashen’s collation of evidence to show that there is a natural order was one of the foundations of his theory. Many people feel that he went on to venture too far into speculation concerning the Monitor. Regardless of this, subsequent studies have tended to confirm the existence of a natural order. There seem to be a number of factors that determine the order of morpheme acquisition, but what is striking is that the order is similar between adults and children, between first- and second language learners, and between second language learners who are native speakers of different languages. Explicit grammar teaching can speed up the acquisition process and improve eventual accuracy, but does not in general seem to alter the order, at least beyond very short-term effects.

It’s certainly worth getting an idea of Universal Grammar and the evidence to support it. Much of linguistics is hard to read, but at least there is Steven Pinker.

Knowledge of the more theoretical issues might not result in any immediate changes in someone’s teaching, but it gets the mental cogs rolling: surely a good thing.

And some articles and books on language are just plain fascinating. You have a passion for language that is no doubt reflected in your teaching. Wouldn’t you say that the things you have read about linguistics and language learning have fed that passion?

Here is an interesting article by a reading psychologist who works for Microsoft:
The Science of Word Recognition: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bouma

I don

Thanks very much for the reply, STG! Your thoughtful post has given me plenty of ideas for further reading.

Apart from the introduction to SLA provided by my Cert. TESOL course, I haven’t attended any formal SLA classes. What I have done is read quite a lot about certain issues, looking at conflicting views and various kinds of evidence in order to form my own opinions. This means, however, that I could do with reading more in some areas.

[quote=“smell the glove”]Beyond that, it gives you all sorts of new ideas to get past the funk of what Pamela Grossman called

Hey joesax, thanks for a great, thoughtful reply. Sorry it

No matter how professionalized they may be, every teacher has a theory of what’s going on their classroom. For poorly professionalized teacher, these theories may be quite simple and have little to do with language acquisition or teaching. However, formalized education in language teaching or linguistics is no guarantee that the theories a teacher operates under are well constructed and provide meaningful guidance.

Theories come and go. This is especially true in TESOL/TEFL and linguistics where established theories have not marked the paradigmatic shifts that have occurred in medicine or physics.

Many teachers continue to operate with out-dated theories or ones that do not conform even to their own experience in the classroom. They do so for a multitude of reasons, but one possible explanation is that they lack the knowledge to reflect on the errors of their theories. The academic theory and research that students are exposed to in school should act as a model of the highest quality theory and its relationship to observed fact, which in this case would be classroom experience rather than research findings.

Hey Scott,
I think we might have a very different sense of

,and, cross-culturally validated. My own sense of language teaching theory is that its theoretical tenets simply mask ethnocentric assumptions about the way learning works.


Ooh, now there’s a can of worms … but a fascinating one. :wink:

Thinking of anything in particular? I’ve been hearing more and more about the relationship between accent and cultural identity, a bit here and there about the problematics of “teaching culture,” and of course the implicit superiority of the E in ESL, EFL, TESL, TEFL…

I always wonder where we draw the line, though. Years ago I was trying to do some communicative stuff at a bushiban and I got royally chewed out by the training staff. They told me what I was attempting was in violation of “Chinese culture” - the kids were instead to be drilled, given constant error correction, led through tons of repetition, drilled some more, made to memorize dialogues, do Q&A around the room, tested constantly, then drilled to death. It was Paulo Freire’s worst nightmare incarnate, and struck me as the legacy of an authoritarian education system determined to keep students at the absolute lowest level of cognition (“knowledge” in Bloom’s taxonomy). Was I being ethnocentric? I wasn’t exactly storming the barricades - more like trying to get students to talk, engage in a little collaborative learning, do some task and content based stuff. Thing is, the students absolutely loved it - it was the administrators who got pissed off - some old-skool parents didn’t care for it either, but most appreciated the big boost in their kids’ motivation levels.


In fact, I do mean that everyone does have a theory in the formal sense that you defined it. Not all these theories have to do with instruction, education, or language learning, though. It’s just as likely that many English teachers here are operating on theories of how the buxiban works, what life in Taiwan is like, or how to get more money from their boss. These would be formal theories with complex and specialized terms to define the relationship between identified important variables within a set of observations that have been observed, manipulated, and analyzed. The aspects of language teaching that concern us here are merely subsets of that theory, rather than, the other way around as I hope it is for us.

The problem is that many English teachers who believe they are operating under theories of language teaching, etc are really operating under these other kinds of theories - of running a business, of cultural difference, even a theory of how to survive in Taiwan. This is the case even for many teachers who have background in linguistics, education, or language teaching. If you have a look at some of the most recent posts on my weblog, I think you’ll see discussions of this problem.

The place of theory in the education of a classroom practitioner should be the best examples of this practice and the knowledge of to tell bad or useless theories from good or useful ones. Graduate education is wasted if it is just a recitation of what the


There are many, many different definitions of ‘theory’ that one can site. In your last posting, you used, a

and then added a definition you obtained from the Merriam Webster,

[quote]the body of generalizations and principles developed in association with practice in a field of activity and forming its content as an intellectual discipline [

Scott, it appears from your last post that I