It’s been a while but I’m very pleased to announce a guest post from a man who requires no introduction, none other than Leo Selivan (also know as lexicalLeo.) Leo is one of the people I’ve known online for years but haven’t yet had the chance to meet. His posts are always informative and well-referenced, -something I always appreciate (and he shares my scepticism for all things Chomsky). Leo blogs at leoxicon
Leo is writing here about one of my  personal favourite topics, the oft discussed gap between theory and practice in ELT.
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 articleby 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-resourcefulor 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). http://gu.com/p/3bvee
Webb, S. (2007). Learning word pairs and glossed sentences: The effects of a single context on vocabulary knowledge. Language Teaching Research, 11, 63-81


  1. Thanks for this post, Leo. I remember you saying that about the AAAL conference when we met at the TESOL one. I've seen the same gap in my particular area of interest, that is NS, NNS, ELF, World Englishes. Most teachers know little about the research that has been done. Hence the idea for TEFL Equity Advocates – to try to bridge the gap between research and practice. Unfortunately, most research done in these areas is very impractical. I'm still not too sure how you could teach ELF, or what ELF pedagogy might look like. I also agree that a lot of the papers are written in a style for which the authors should be hung, drawn and quartered. There are exceptions of course, but a lot of research is incomprehensible and boring, unfortunately. The last problem is the cost. Journals can be really expensive. It's only now that I'm affiliated to a university, that I have access to and read a lot of academic papers. Never did when I taught in language schools.


  2. Many thanks for this thought provoking post Leo. As you know http://www.tesolacademic.org/ tries to bridge the dysfunctional theory practice dichotomy, but it's not easy! Many in the academy argue that our work is not real \”theory\” or knowledge building, whilst many teachers think we're too ivory tower-based with no implications for practice. For me both positions are problematic and a solution is to locate what we do in “praxis”, which is defined as “the mutually constitutive roles of theory grounded in practice and practice grounded in theory. It is way of thinking about critical work that does not dichotomise theory and practice but rather sees them as always dependent on each other” (Pennycook, 1999, p. 342)


  3. Great article Leo and a big fan of this blog, your blog, (and Scott's and Rachael's too).Will definitely try to get to Toronto this year since I'm in Canada already.


  4. I have been reading LexicalLEO for some time and absolutely love what he writes. I also agree with his main point here, that there is a gap and we should try and bridge it. However, I wouldn't delegate that responsibility to \”mediators\”, though. Knowing all the difficulties in access to research, mediators — such as material writers and teacher trainers — can and should try to help, but we should not expect so little of teachers either. To me, teachers cannot be mere consumers of guru-digested guidelines. Why? First of all, ideologically, I believe merely applying guidelines is the job of a technician, and although technicians are extremely important in the world, we should expect more reflection and decision power from a profession that lives of other people studying. Secondly, I'm reminded of a Canagarajah book (but I'll be damned if I remember which) that indicates that the moment teachers close their classroom doors, things may just stay the same… They'll get a top-notch task-based book and do grammar and translation. They'll say yes to the task-based teacher training and teach as they've always done. Materials and teacher training do not a class make.


  5. Great! Must confess my draw dropped open when I read presenting words in context was less effective than presenting words pairs, but I was greatly reassured that that wasn't the case as I read on. Many thanks for an interesting read.


  6. Hi Marek,Yes, I must have ranted about it at TESOL 🙂 I think you're doing a great job with TEFL Equity Advocates. I often mention your initiative to people I meet. Just today I was talking to an English teacher who had a Master's degree (with a TESOL component) from the Sorbonne and a CELTA and who got the boot because she was a non-native! You see the language school she was working at in London suddenly decided to keep only NESTs and sack all NNESTs.When it comes to EFL, I'm somewhat ambivalent about it. Indeed, how do we turn the research into EFL pedagogy? For example, Penny Ur, who is one of the mediators who normally does a good job of translating research into easy-to-digest practical tips. She dabbled with ELF for a while (about 6-7 years ago); I heard her give a couple of talks on the subject. But when Jenkins and Seidelhofer went a bit \”extreme\”, she sought to distance herself from the ELF movement.I think she said once (in one of her talks) that \”she go\” and \”people which\” may be acceptable and do not cause breakdown in communication as long as we are TEACHERS, we should teach the correct/standard form. Indeed, our students expect us to. Of course, they can go on to use \”she go\” outside the classroom and still be intelligible.I agree with you about expensive subscriptions to most academic journals full of incomprehensible articles. Hence my suggestion about reading blog.Thank you for your comment!L


  7. Thank you, Huw. I know that you're trying to bridge the gap and I should have mentioned your website too! Thank you also for your definition of the elusive term. I'm sure many assume that \”praxis\” is just a lofty, academic way of referring to \”practice\” (as opposed to theory)L


  8. Hi Ben,I'm glad you like the article and my blog.TESOL is in Baltimore this year and AAAL… is in Orlando. You see, the gap is growing wider. The conferences are not timed together like it has been for the past few years :/


  9. Hi Natalia,Thank you for your kind words. You think I absolve teachers of the responsibility and delegate it to mediators? Perhaps. I would like teachers to be thoughtful and reflective consumers of research but the sad truth is most of them are not – excluding, of course, all the readers of this blog and those who have left comments here :)Thank you for reading the post and taking the time to comment.


  10. Hi Vicki,Good to see you here!In fact, there have been other studies which showed that contextualisation is not always helpful in the early stages of learning. The problem is though, just like in Webb's study, is the target items normally chosen for such experiments. You don't really need much context to learn concrete nouns – words with high semantic content. Once you form the link between the word \”hammer\” and its L1 translation, there you have it! But how can you learn without context (or rather co-text) words that do not have exact L1 equivalents (e.g. \”sizzle\” doesn't have L1 equivalents in many languages), abstract nouns (e.g. \”guilt\”, \”fault\”) or expressions (\”all the more reason for\”).Sorry about too many brackets – or it is parentheses? 😉


  11. Hi Leo, Following a promise to use “solid, substantial evidence” to support your case for misleading terminology, you assert that readers are unlikely to have ever seen an article in an applied linguistics journal dealing with “lexical chunks” because scholars use the term “formulaic language”. In fact, there are a large number of articles in applied linguistics journals using the term “lexical chunks”, including articles written by Biber, Conrad, Nattinger and DeCarrico, Tomlinson, Widdowson, Skehan, Robinson, G. Cook, Thornbury, Shmitt, Lindstromberg, Boers, Wray, Allen, Eyckmans, Kappel, Stengers, Wang, and Koprowski. You go on to say that “grammar teaching is referred to by applied linguistics as “focus on form”…., teaching “is disguised (sic) as “instruction”, …. and the classroom is referred to as an “instructional setting”.” In fact, articles for applied linguistics journals about grammar teaching often use the term “grammar teaching”; articles about teaching often use the term “teaching”, and classrooms are often referred to as “classrooms”. A search in Google Scholar will confirm these assertions. So, while I think we can all appreciate the point you’re trying to make, I’m afraid you don’t make the point very well; better examples of obscurantism are, after all, not difficult to find. I completely agree with your point about “mediators”, as you call them, ignoring, misinterpreting or misapplying research findings. It’s a pity that your own attempts “to translate research into clear methodological guidelines” don’t take more notice of research which contradicts Hoey’s theory of language learning, a theory which you so uncritically champion. Geoff Jordan


  12. I agree with your post and hence have stopped going to AAAL. My rationale: if theory builders believe that they can do their stuff without considering applications, then what's the point of listening to them. Regarding the TESOL-AAAL timing, I hear that this is a temporary separation (because things were planned a long time ago) and they will be coming back together.


  13. A major problem I've witnessed is that our profession does not incorporate findings (or for the most part are even aware) of important educational research. We've shuttered ourselves off from the wider world of education. Take for example a very clear falsehood that research has shown wrong but which seems common knowledge in TESOL – that children learn language quicker than adults (they don't – they learn differently and when time is accounted for, they actually learn slower). Plus, how many EFL instructors/teachers actually pursue and obtain higher degrees in education / teaching? Too many university instructors teaching the practical subject of \”English\” have degrees in applied linguistics which does nothing to inform them about how to teach and the practical elements of what works in a classroom. I'll refrain from commenting in detail how much of what is published as \”research\” by applied linguists is just junk – small samples and can't be applied beyond its own situational conditions, mainly done to write a paper and get published and keep the job. Too much flywheel, not enough sparkplug.Appreciate the post.


  14. Hi Geoff,I see you haven't left the ELT blogosphere completely – good that you're still around!I didn't make up my examples – they come from my experience as teacher trainer and from reading academic journals. \”Lexical chunks\” are used but I see \”formulaic language\” is the term used a lot by Schmitt, Wray, Ellis, N. But you're right. I should have done a Google search before making sweeping generalisations – but then, you're not exactly a paragon of subtlety :)I'm glad that you agree on the whole with the point I make and that you liked my comment about mediators – but then again, I knew you would ;)Finally, regarding my uncritical acceptance of Hoey's theory – duly noted.L


  15. Thank you for your comment and clarification regarding TESOL-AAAL timing. If I ever go across the pond to attend TESOL, I'll try and take in AAAL as well.L


  16. Thank you. I agree with all the points you make: the age factor and small samples used by researchers under experimental conditions.I would also add that few applied linguists keep blogs (unlike TESOL/TEFL teachers) where they disseminate and communicate their findings in a more 'user-friendly' way.Thank you for reading the post and for your insightful comment.


  17. Thanks for this post, Leo – I think you make some very good points. A lot of literature in applied linguistics is very dry and seems far removed from classroom practice. I wonder if, perhaps, we are looking to the wrong sort of academia for our answers? Applied linguistics, as an academic discipline, tends to operate within a positivist paradigm, with research usually based on the collection of quantitative data that is analysed in order to test a hypothesis. This tends to produce research findings that are valid and generalisable, but which often focus on rather arbitrary or inauthentic things – like how quickly language learners can recall lists of words, for example. In order to be generalisable or measurable, such studies are often stripped of context, but of course stripping them of context also takes away the many factors that exist in a classroom and which may well have a big impact on learning.I think it was Pennycook who wrote many years ago (something like 1992) that ELT should pay less attention to Applied linguistics and more to Education for its academic input. This hasn't happened, but if you ever look at articles in educational journals you find the research is far more qualitative, more focused on the learners and the learning experience, and I think this is lacking in applied linguistics.Rather than looking for a single answer to how languages are learned (whether it's universal grammar, lexical priming, whatever) maybe we should accept that there are so many variables in the language learning process that to try to find \”the\” answer is maybe a bit of a waste of time, and maybe we should take a more qualitative approach and listen to what teachers and learners have to say and use this as our data. This might also help us to get more in tune with our praxis, and to regard language teaching as a form of education (which it is) and not some kind of scientific pursuit (which is what applied linguists seem to think it is). Steve


  18. Dear Leo, I am really happy to see people swimming against the current. When Russ presented Pseudo-Science I was shocked that someone really have the same belief. But today, I can see that many practitioners and specialist agree with you. I hope one day we will see theorists come down to earth and see what is going on in classrooms. One little thing, not all teachers are exposed-have the ability or time- to research sources. That could be because of the huge loads of work. It is not an easy job.


  19. Dear Ahmed,Thank you for stopping by. I also think that teachers' workload doesn't allow them to engage with research, hence my remark about the role of mediators. But I understand, of course, not everyone would agree with this position – see, for example, Natalia's comment above.L


  20. Hi Leo,Here's the reference to Pennycook's article:Pennycook, A. (1990), 'Critical pedagogy and second language education', in System Vol.18, No.3, pp.303-314.Pennycook was arguing that we should engage in critical pedagogy in language teaching, rather than just viewing language teaching as a kind of applied-linguistics-in-action. Reading it now, it's perhaps quite surprising how relevant it still is – it certainly really resonates with me.Let me know what you think if you manage to get time to read it.Best wishes,Steve


  21. Thanks for this, Huw. It's frustrating how much good information is inaccessible to those outside \”inner circles\” of academia.Steve


  22. A very interesting blog post.In your reply you refer to 'co-text' rather than 'context' and I realise that in my classes I've probably been using 'context' for both the non-verbal environment in which a word is used and the surrounding words. I hope this knowledge of the two different terms will make me a better teacher, or should I say 'practitioner'?As well as the cases you mention, co-text is useful for learning collocations and is necessary in the cases where English words have several different meanings e.g. 'admit'- to accept blame for an action, to allow someone to join a class/club, to accept that something is true.Thanks for an interesting read.


  23. Thanks for this post, Leo I think not all of the theories can be applied in classroom, however, it is an important point that specialists and practitioners can choose the one which can be applied in the class.Saddah


  24. Just a quick comment and a good post. One thing that has irked me is the disregard of IPA in ELT in favor of other systems that have no international standard and are not used in the literature.This could be a pet peeve of mine, but it seems there is an already agreed upon way of phonetics, yet some feel they need to literally reinvent the alphabet or otherwise misapply IPA rules.


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