evidence based resources

So you want to be evidence based but don’t know where to start! Here are a list of sites and resources which promote evidence in education for free! 

Summaries of research

Research bites is an excellent site which offers summaries of ELT and SLA research. THe site offers summaries of single papers in clear and accessible terms. There are a range of author and I believe the summary writers write to the article authors to check that they are happy with the summary. Anthony Schmidt runs the site and his own blog is worth a look too. 

The OASIS summaries page offers something very similar to research bites but is run by academics rather than teachers. They also offer advice about how to cite the summaries in your research. The summaries are in pdf form and can be download. The IRIS database also includes summaries of research and in addition to that offers research tools . The NCELP is another site which offers resources but for modern language teachers. 

Free access journals 

Should you want to read academic articles directly there are a few things you can do. There is increasingly a move towards open access in all kinds of publications and ELT is no different. This article on open access in ELT, is open access. It’s written by Emma Marsden who is a big advocate for transparency in research. 

ELTjam featured a really nice article showing you which journals have free access and limited free access and these days most journals have something you can view for free. The article has a lot of great tips on getting hold of articles (legally) for free. Another thing you can try is writing to the author. With academics I’ve had a pretty good success rate when just emailing them and asking for a copy of papers. I think most of them are just overjoyed that someone wants to read their stuff. Disclaimer: I wouldn’t try this with someone who makes their living selling reference books and the like. I very much doubt Scott Thornbury will email you a copy of ‘the A-Z of ELT’. 

The British council and Cambridge (CUP) both offer some of their own research for free. You can get hold of quite a lo of good quality stuff just by browsing their sites. It should be noted that nothing in this post represents an endorsement of any of the research you find on these sites. For instance, the British Council site has a section on the dubious ‘21st century skills‘ 


The education endowment Foundation also offers some summaries of research (though it is general education not ELT). The site also has reports on various areas of teaching. The site is very accessible and lays out information in a very accessible way

A couple more useful sites are 3 star learning and the learning scientist (the latter of which has an accompanying podcast). They both offer interesting articles on research in Education however the former seems to have no way of navigating the site. The learning scientist has some nice, clear downloadable resources. (Thanks to Anthony Schmidt for directing me to these two websites.)


There are a number of blogs which seek to present evidence in education. This blog, for instance has a ‘try this it works‘ section which attempts to summarise research. Philip Kerr has some good stuff on translation and adaptive learningIn addition to this Greg Ashman’s blog on teaching is usually well researched as is David Didau’s ‘learning spy‘ site. These last two are general education though. 

If I missed anything out please let me know and I’ll update this page. 

edit 1

A list of papers by topic for educational research
Simon Borg’s website
Reading in a Foreign Language Journal

Duy Van Vu’s list of open-access journals on ELT
Paul Nation’s articles

Try this it works! Error correction for speaking

I first met Chris Smith at IATEFL 2014. I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to his talk entitled error correction for speaking: An evidence based approach” (write up here) How could I resist? I didn’t agree with all of Chris’ conclusions but I did enjoy his talk and when I ran into him in the pub the other day I invited him to write a guest blog post. Here it is!

Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf

Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf

(Chris is an EAP tutor in the ELTC at the University of Sheffield You can follow him here.)

There are lots of ever-present arguments and controversies in EFL, but few are as persistent as whether error correction for speaking actually has any effect. One of the principles of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is that students should be allowed to speak, communicate and develop fluency. Concurrent with that have been ideas to reduce error correction (EC) or even avoid it all together. Are these good ideas? What evidence is there about EC?

A short history of EC in EFL

(Although I wasn’t there, so feel free to tell me it wasn’t that way!)

Tracing a rough history of error correction in ELT, back in 1960s, a behaviourist influenced Audiolingual approach dominated. This argued that errors should not be tolerated, with correction being immediate and direct (Richards and Rodgers, 1986, p58) because they would propagate bad language behaviour.

The pendulum began to swing the other way with Communicative Language Teaching prevailing in the 1970s until we find the Natural Approach in the 1980s, stating: “Our view is that overt error correction of speech, even in the best of circumstances is likely to have a negative effect on the students’ willingness to try to express themselves” (Krashen and Terrell, 1988, p177). So the argument here is that EC is worse than useless! Firstly it doesn’t work and secondly it will kill any desire to communicate in the student. Krashen’s position creates two separate points although in this post I’ll focus mainly on the first: whether EC is actually effective in terms of acquisition or learning.

Krashen’s ideas were very influential in EFL literature. Harmer (1991, p49) warns against intervention during communicative activities. Ur (1996, p247) recommends correcting for accurate production but not for fluency exercises. Edge (1989) argues that EC should only be given on recently taught items and that learners need uninterrupted communication. Hedge (2000, p290) reports that trainee teachers are often advised to avoid correcting insensitively and causing anxiety or embarrassment.  

Types of corrective feedback

A previous post, from Leo Selivan, talked about the way applied linguistics does not use the same terminology as teachers, and this is true in error correction literature too. This is perhaps understandable since EFL literature is aimed at training teachers, while applied linguistics research is required to be peer-reviewed. Nevertheless it makes it confusing when different terminology is used to describe the same topics.

Numerous taxonomies of error correction techniques can be found (e.g. Harmer, 1991; Lyster and Ranta, 1997; Ur, 1996), all describing the same things, but often doing so in different ways. For example, Ur uses “explanation”, while Lyster and Ranta use “metalinguistic feedback” and Harmer uses “echoing” whereas Lyster and Ranta use “recast” (albeit with a slightly different definition). Most journal articles seem to follow Lyster and Ranta’s terms now, but this may be difficult terminology to grasp for teachers trained with teaching manuals.

In broad terms, we can divide EC into 3 groups: implicit correction, which can involve repeating in correct English (recasts) and negotiating meaning, but where the discourse is not stopped to highlight an error; explicit correction, which can use a variety of techniques, but crucially, where the teacher ensures the error and correction are noticed; and delayed correction, where the teacher allows conversation to continue but then later picks up on errors made, perhaps writing several on the board and eliciting corrections and explanations.

Evidence on the effectiveness of error correction

There have been a number of observational or experimental studies in which two or more groups of students are given instruction, with one control group receiving no EC, while the other group(s) receive(s) (different types of) EC. Here are a few, which are all describing spoken EC studies.

Lightbown and Spada (1990) analysed 4 different classes of 10-12 year olds over a 5 month period. They did not intervene in the teacher’s styles, but by observing and noticing the differences between teachers, they concluded that fluency, accuracy and communication could be developed best by a teaching approach that includes EC.

Carroll, Roberge and Swain (1992) compared adult learners at 2 different levels, one group getting EC and the other not, for instruction on particular vocabulary and grammar points. They found positive results, stating “correction clearly had an effect on learning in all the conditions tested” (p.185).

Carroll and Swain (1993) examined the effects of 4 different types of EC in separate groups against a control group of no EC. All 4 groups significantly outperformed the control group when tested on the target grammar point, with the group receiving explicit correction with an explanation performing the best.

Lyster and Ranta (1997) asked whether all types of feedback are equally effective. Their experiment yielded data which suggested explicit EC was more effective than implicit EC. This suggests it is important for teachers to make sure students realise that a correction has been provided.

Loewen (2005) analysed 17 hours of classroom interaction, counted 491 instances of explicit correction of non-target language and devised individualised tests to check recall of this. He found positive results, concluding “incidental focus on form does have some effect on L2 learning” (p381). This contradicts what was recommended in some earlier teaching manuals, which recommended only correcting target language, and not correcting at all during fluency activities. Loewen’s evidence suggests correcting at any time can produce improvements in language development.

Ellis, Loewen and Erlam (2006) found that explicit feedback was more effective than implicit feedback and that the benefits became more evident over time, suggesting explicit feedback aids long term acquisition, so this supports Lyster and Ranta (1997).

Some studies have been less conclusive than those described; however, the general trend is for research to demonstrate that EC has a positive effect on language development. There has been controversy over implicit corrections, including recasts, as learners may not notice them. However, the research shows them to have some beneficial effect (it’s worth remembering that although the speaker may not notice the correction, other learners might). In an overview of recasts,  Long (2007, p76) stated: “There is mounting support from research in both first and second language acquisition for the claim that [negative evidence] does affect competence, facilitating language development when it occurs.”

There is even stronger support for explicit EC where the teacher makes sure the learner notices they have made an error. The studies above found it to be more effective than implicit EC. In a comprehensive overview of studies into corrective feedback, Ellis (2008, p885) states: “There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning.”

So, when it comes to evidence based EFL, we can conclude that the evidence shows that error correction works. I would also assert that if people want to argue that it does not work, they cannot merely cherry pick one or two articles that did not find a link. They would need to show why all the clear evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong. So going back to Krashen and Terrell, they asserted that EC is useless, and this idea has been dogmatically perpetuated. However, this is demonstrably wrong. The evidence shows that EC clearly is effective.

Another aspect of Krashen and Terrell’s argument was that EC will raise an affective filter, discourage communication and prevent learning. This is an idea that keeps being brought up and I presented about this at IATEFL 2015. The recording of that is available here, so I won’t repeat the content of that at length. Suffice to say that when I investigated my students’ (EAP pre-sessional) attitudes to EC, they overwhelmingly said they believed it to be effective, they did not find it embarrassing and they wanted more of it than they were getting, which flies in the face of the affective filter concept.

Implications for classroom practice

EC works, students know this and want more of it, particularly explicit corrections with explanations. If students are making mistakes, they want to know, want to be told why it’s wrong and want the correct form provided. This is how they can improve the accuracy of their speech.

So more class time should be given over to EC, form-focused instruction, feedback on production, working with what students are saying and helping them to say it better. If you plan a stage where the students speak for 5-10 minutes related to a language point, you can include a post speaking EC stage, telling them you are going to correct any mistakes or try and improve their language, by asking a display question to each student.

If you are listening to a student and the focus is meaning, you may not want to stop them in the flow of speech but you can make a note and come back to it later. If your students are involved in a discussion task, let them get on it with it, but make notes, and once the task is finished, do some language work. All of these things need time, so they need to be considered at the planning stage.

And if you are unsure whether your own students would respond as positively to more error correction, ask them. You can include it on a needs analysis form, or as a separate survey, so that you can adopt an evidence-based approach


CARROLL, Susanne and SWAIN, Merrill (1993) Explicit and Implicit Negative Feedback: An Empirical Study of the Learning of Linguistic Generalizations. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15, 357-386.

CARROLL, Susanne, SWAIN, Merrill and ROBERGE, Yves (1992). The role of feedback in adult second language acquisition: Error correction and morphological generalizations. Applied Psycholinguistics 13, no. 2 173-198.

EDGE, Julian (1989) Mistakes and Correction. London, Longman.
ELLIS, Rod (2008). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, OUP.

ELLIS, Rod, LOEWEN, Shawn and ERLAM, Rosemary (2006). Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback  and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar.

HARMER, Jeremy (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching (New Edition). Harlow, Longman.

HEDGE, T (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Second Language Classroom. Oxford, OUP.

KRASHEN, Stephen D. and TERRELL, Tracy D. (1988) The Natural Approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Hemel Hempstead, Prentice Hall.

LIGHTBOWN, Patsy M. and SPADA, Nina (1990). Focus on Form and Corrective Feedback in Communicative Language Teaching. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 429-448.

LOEWEN, Shawn (2005). Incidental focus on form and second language learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27(03), 361-386.

LONG, Michael H. (2007). Problems in SLA. London, Lawrence Erlbaum.

LYSTER, Roy and RANTA, Leila (1997). Corrective Feedback and Learner Uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 20, 37-66.

RICHARDS, Jack C. and RODGERS, Theodore S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

UR, Penny (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

EBEFL asks part 2: The evidence strikes back…

One odd thing that happened after IATEFL was people suddenly assuming I was an EFL expert. I started getting questions about the efficacy of this or that method or the merits of vocabulary versus grammar. To be honest I generally have no idea and while it may be expedient for me to cultivate an image of being a knowledgeable so-and-so that’s not the case. I’m not expert in very much and more importantly other ‘experts’ are probably not as expert as we may think. 

How do I know this? Maths. 
According to Fred Perry there are around 100 journals relating to SLA and language teaching at present. Each of these puts out around 3 or 4 issues a year (3×10=300) and each one has, let’s say, about five articles a piece which is about 1,500 articles a year. There is no way anyone could reasonably be expected to keep up with these and all the articles/books that have gone before them. Rod Ellis may be an expert on SLA but how would he fare in discussions of ELF, testing or corpus linguistic?
So in short I don’t know that much and nobody knows everything. These two points bring me to two requests:

No. 1. I’d like to try to help spread the ‘ask for evidence’ meme created by Sense about Science. If anything came out of the talk at IATEFL for me it’s the need for teachers to be less afraid of asking questions and challenging the status quo. I had a large number of emails thanking me from people saying they’d always thought something was not quite right but never felt they couldn’t say anything. Some had even got into trouble for questioning ‘established practice’. There is nothing wrong with asking the question ‘how do you know that?’ In fact, it’s sad that educators should feel they can’t. As long as you are not rude or patronising it’s reasonable to expect an answer.

So the next time someone claims that ‘teacher talking time should be reduced’ or ‘grammar mcnuggests are bad for students’ or that ‘students have nine different types of intelligence‘ politely enquire on what grounds the speaker makes those claims and be cautious of accepting ‘my experience’ or ‘it’s obvious’ as answers. There may be very good reasons for the claims, then again there may not. Either way, you’ll learn something. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that people, who are probably far busier than me, have taken the time to respond to my emails. And that brings me to…

No. 2 I’d like to ask anyone who is an expert/knowledgeable in a particular field, be it motivation or vocab to get in touch. As I said earlier, it’s impossible for anyone to know everything and with that in mind I’d really like to start having some guest bloggers, particularly those who can offer teachers practical advice based on research. Ideally you’d be highlighting the research evidence that a certain practice or set of practices ‘work’ or conversely, don’t.
Let me know at rm190@le.ac.uk


Happy Birthday EBEFL! (about)

On the 19th of March 2012 I tentatively started this blog with a post about the word literally not really expecting much f  reaction. One year, 41 posts 120 comments and 2,400 hits later (mostly from Swedish spam bots) and  I’m constantly surprised and incredibly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive reaction this blog has received. I want to take the opportunity to talk about why I set up EBEFL. Firstly I should say that I’m massively influenced by Ben Goldacre, and if you haven’t read his blog or his book, “bad science” then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Recently, he’s been writing about evidence in education and it’s well worth a read. 

Why Evidence-based EFL?

Life is short. The older I get the more I realize time is running out at a breath-taking pace.  A common theme in my life is investing effort into something which turns out, in the end to be a waste of time.  An example of this is martial arts.  I always loved martial arts and did them since I was a kid. I used to love martial arts movies like (based on a true story!) “bloodsport“. Finally when I moved to Japan I had the chance to do the “real” thing and took up a jiu-jitsu class.  Every week I went along and practised, and eventually got my black-belt.  My family were in awe, thinking I was some kind of dangerous killer. This was complete tosh and a strong gust of wind could have probably knocked me over, but the idea that I was an “expert” was enough to convince them and I certainly wasn’t about to deny it. I had almost completely convinced myself that this bit of coloured fabric had some actual meaning. It didn’t. 

The problem was that the martial art, like many martial arts was misguided.  It had a fixed method and it bent reality to fit with that. For example, if someone grabs your arm like X, then you twist it like so and hey-presto! Or if someone, punches you like Y, then you side-step and perform some killer move on them.  Of course, in truth, and if you ever see a real violent confrontation, no one will ever grab you like X or try to punch you like Y. By and large fights are messy affairs, and if someone is intent on doing you harm, they’ll probably do it, before you know what’s happened. People don’t hold knives out as they approach, nor do they telegraph punches. (incidentally, I recently found out that the true story bloodsport was based on was complete tosh.)  

Martial arts may seem unrelated to TEFL but exactly the same problems exist. Experts are made with qualifications (DELTA black belts!) and are often believed unquestioningly. Techniques and methods are designed and then reality is forced to fit them. In TEFL, like in martial arts (and in health care, public policy, science and pretty much any aspect of human life) a healthy dose of scepticism will almost certainly end up leaving us all better off.   

I recently read a blog post that insisted people are naturally sceptical but this isn’t quite right. People can be naturally sceptical about some things, some of the time. Sagan gives the example of buying a car:

When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers — whatever our education has left to us. You could say, “Here’s an honest-looking fellow. I’ll just take whatever he offers me.” Or you might say, “Well, I’ve heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson,” and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don’t know what is supposed to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It’s upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it — because if you don’t exercise some minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you’ll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early.(read more of this excellent piece here)

So we can be sceptical but often little tricks in our brains stop us from kicking the tires. The most powerful are perhaps confirmation bias and argument from authority. People can be fooled by “experts” or can fool themselves because they really want to believe their new method is producing great results. This self-deception is often the hardest to overcome. Scepticism is not just for debunking those things you think are wrong, it is far more important for challenging  -those things you’re sure about. 

When people read this blog and come across something lacking evidence which they believe in, they usually all have a similar reaction. They tend to shrug and say either  “well, evidence or not, I still believe this is useful and I’m going to continue to use it.” Or “well teaching isn’t science –it’s art!” or something like that. When people see something they think works cognitive dissonance kicks in and the rationalisations start. “I’m a good teacher so what I do in class must be good” or the more common one I encounter “well sure this method might not work but I’m going to keep doing it because students like it/I have no alternative/it’s good for tests etc etc.

I hope that this blog will be a home for critical thinking. I hope it will stop teachers and students wasting time and money on things which don’t or can’t work. I hope it will challenge authority and more than anything get people thinking. If you don’t agree with what I write that’s fine, but at least think about what you’re doing and don’t just accept what your CELTA tutor, the British council or a famous good-looking tanned, TEFL expert tells you. But also don’t believe yourself either and certainly don’t take my word for anything. Ask to see the evidence and if there isn’t any, why not try to make some?

Is guessing from context a load of XXXXXX?

Look at the following sentence, -what do you think the missing word is?

Juan’s teacher is always angry because Juan never does his XXXXXX

I’m sure many of us, myself included, have seen or taught a sentence like the one above to introduce the skill of “guessing from context”, or trying to infer the meaning of unknown words by looking at clues such as the grammar or context. The logic of this approach seems to be that students spend far too much time looking at dictionaries and not enough time XXXXXX listening. They shouldn’t try to understand every word but should just “guess” at the meanings. 

But is it even possible to guess the meaning of a word? and if it is, how good are students at guessing? Just for fun, here are two sentences to try. I’ve been reading “Going Clear” this week and luckily, I actually came across two words I didn’t know. I’ve included both sentences because you might know one of the words but probably not both, and so one can be a ‘cloze’ and one a real word. Let’s see how XXXXXX well you do at guessing:

Homes was an XXXXXX* with almond-shaped brown eyes.

The racist white cop who molests a tony upper-class black woman.

I decided to read the literature on “guessing” (so that you don’t have to!) and quickly discovered two things. Firstly there’s a XXXXXX lot of it, and secondly it’s XXXXXX messy. But before I get down to the details, it’s important to understand a key problem with this area. There is essentially a tension between the fact that humans must learn a huge amount of vocabulary by guessing/inferring, (after all, no one actively taught you most of the words you know) and the fact that in a large number of situations (like the two examples above) guessing seems almost impossible. The type of word trying to be guessed is clearly a factor. guessing the word “hammer” is probably a lot easier than guessing the meaning of the word “acknowledge”. But what do the experts think about ‘guessing’ and more importantly, what does the evidence say?

Paul Nation thinks it is a “a very powerful and useful strategy” and is “worth spending a few minutes on” every week (2009:55). Unfortunately, he offers no evidence to back this up. Walter and Swan aren’t so keen describing it as “the alleged ‘skill’ of guessing unknown words from context.” and adding that “research has shown, and it can easily be demonstrated practically that unknown vocabulary can rarely be successfully processed in this way” (2008:71) However a different Walters (note the S) has carried out a meta-analysis of inferring in which she concludes that “it seems clear from research that…drawing students’ attention to context when attempting to infer meaning of unknown words is worth the time effort in the language classroom.” (2004:250)

There were two other meta-analyses carried out on this subject, (though it should be said, mostly relating to L1 learners) which completely disagreed with each other. Kuhn and Stahl reviewing the literature conclude that “if these studies represent where the field is now, then we cannot recommend instruction in context clues.” (1998:135) but Fukkink and de Glopper disagree noting that “even a small improvement of the ability to infer the meaning of unknown words would result in a sizable number of words learned.” (1998:451)

One major issue is that the research seems a bit XXXXXX sketchy at times, with a lot of it coming from L1. Add to that small sample sizes, lack of control groups, difference in testing procedure etc and it’s not surprising that Kuhn and Stahl note “given the frequent recommendations that children be taught the use of context clues, the paucity of research evidence is quite disappointing” (1998:129) Almost 20 years earlier Nation described it as being “widely acknowledged as a useful skill” while pointing out that there was very little evidence to back that sentiment up. In 1994 Knight reiterated this noting “although in recent years, many researchers, teachers, and textbook authors have encouraged students to guess, to use inference as the strategy of first choice (30; 48; 49; 64), this advice appears to be based more on conjecture than on empirical finding” (Knight 1994:286)

But lack of evidece aside, are student any good at it? Well they certainly like it. Schmitt, refers to one study which “found that their university ESL students used inferencing in about 78% of all cases where they actively tried to identify the meanings of unknown words” (Paribakht and Wesche 1999 in Schimidt) and another study found students used it with 58% of unknown words (Fraser 1999 in Schmidt). However, despite their enthusiasm for guessing, students are not very XXXXXX good at it for example Grabe states:

Guessing meanings of words is not an efficient way of learning new words explicitly when it is used as a textbook or class exercises…In four studies Gough and Wren (1999) showed that when L1 students guess words from context they are accurate only 14 to 45 percent of the time.(Grabe 2009:73)

However he doesn’t write it off completely as a strategy, but notes a dictionary would yield better results. Incidentally, the results for dictionary use are clearer “subjects who used the dictionary not only learned more words but also achieved higher reading comprehension scores than those who guessed from context” (Knight 1994:295) There was no evidence in other papers that guessing improved reading scores or that students were even able to remember words they guessed correctly.

The low rate of success for guessing is a common finding:

Nassaji (2003) found that of 199 guesses, learners only made 51 (25.6%) that were successful, and another 37 (18.6%) that were partially successful. This low success rate is similar to the 24% rate that Bensoussan and Laufer’s (1984) learners achieved. (Schmitt 2008:350)

Frantzen’s results (N11!) show students were only successful in about 30% of cases. She also reports Kelly’s (1990) findings that even when just one word was unknown in a text “Contextual guessing alone seldom allows the reader to arrive at the correct meaning”(1990 in Frantzen 2003:169)

Another problem is that it isn’t always clear what exactly people are talking about when they talk about this. When teachers “teach” this skill what exactly is it that they are doing? Likewise, what is actually being tested? Knight (1994) suggests that the huge disparity in results could be due to a disparity in researcher testing methods. For example some use XXXXXX (cloze) while others use made up words and others researchers use real words. Fukkink and de Glopper suggest that giving advice on best practice with regard to this method is hard because “the empirical evidence is not unequivocal and the theoretical foundations of instruction are sparse or even absent.” (1998:462) All of this adds to the confusion.

But generally speaking it seems, slightly effective. Experimental groups almost always seem to outperform those not taught anything. However these are largely the results of L1 studies and “research in L2 contexts however, does not provide such strong support for lexical inferencing” (Nassaji 2006:397) Another caveat to this is many L1 studies also show that mere “practice may be equally effective as instruction” (Fukkink and de Glopper 1998:452) that is where a “practice only” group was included they did just as well as those who were taught. Kuhn and Stahl suggest that “merely practising deriving words from context would be enough to make students better at deriving words from context.” (1998:129) 

There is however a very strong correlation between language ability and the ability to guess word meanings (Frantzen 2003). Nassaji (2006:394) adds that, being able to understand the text “as a whole and most of the words in it” is a good indicator of success in inferencing and this fits with Nations finding that students should know 94% of a text to be able to understand it. It’s perhaps not XXXXXX rocket science to suggest that guessing from context is tough when you have no idea what the context is.

Kelly (1990) and Laufer (1997) question the value of guessing on the grounds that texts do not always provide adequate information to facilitate correct guessing of words. Stein (1993:204) suggests that “part of the problem is that the contextual clues themselves are largely insufficient to narrow in on a word’s meaning. The language itself allows for many unavoidable possibilities in interpretation, often many more than wanted.” This view is supported by Grabe and Carrell who note that “what may appear to be transparent ‘guessable’contexts to native speakers are often incomprehensible contexts to native speakers”(in Schmitt 2002:240) So you might think it’s easy for your students but it XXXXXX isn’t.
Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself:

A biomic approach by integrating three independent methods, DNA microarray, proteomics and bioinformatics, is used to study the differentiation of human myeloid leukemia cell line HL-60 into macrophages when induced by 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate (TPA). (Juan H-F et al 2002)

Guess away!

What is slightly odd however, is students who presumably know how to do this in their L1 mysterious forget how to do it in L2. This should be something we don’t need to teach them. As Nagy (in Kuhn and Stahl 1998:133) notes “Learning from context is a natural process, as well as the way in which we have learned most of what we know.” Swan agrees:

Why should language students need training in making intelligent guesses?Are they less intelligent people, less good at guessing, than other groups in the population? Than language teachers, for instance? Is there any reason at all to suppose that they do not already possess this skill? And if they possess it, do we have any real evidence that they cannot in general apply it to learning a foreign language? And if we do not have such evidence, what are we doing setting out to teach people something they can do already?” (Swan 1985:8)

One suggestion is that lower-level students’ “processing power” is entirely taken up with trying to understand the language to the extent that when they improve they will be able to use this skill. “The ability to apply the skill is inversely proportional to the user’s linguistic competence. This, and all the other sub-skills and strategies, are things that the learners have mostly already got in their L1, but they can only progressively apply them to L2 as their linguistic abilities improve” (Stranks 2010)

So in short; students like it, but they XXXXXX suck at it. They can be taught it but the results aren’t much better than just practicing. and some words are just unguessable. The more words they know and the better their English is, the better chance they have of guessing correctly. All of which leads me to the XXXXXX astonishing conclusion that working on their English, rather than teaching them how to ‘guess’, might be a pretty XXXXXX good idea. 

*Ingenue: A naive, innocent girl or young woman
tony: marked by an aristocratic or high-toned manner or style

How to create your own TEFL method

disclaimer: All methods appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real methods, living or dead, is purely coincidental

1. come up with a new theory

It doesn’t really have to be new, it can be a rehash of old stuff with a new name if you like. Ideally it would involve doing the opposite of whatever it is teachers are currently doing. For example, if teachers are using textbooks, the your method should be textbook free. And if teachers generally like to correct students’ grammar then your method should avoid that altogether. In fact it should expressly prohibit correction.

Teachers are constantly disappointed with the results they achieve. Like the overweight   making yet another doomed set of new year’s resolutions, teachers’ sense of hope is strong. They believe that if they can just find the right method, it will unlock the secrets of English for their students. Whip up some interest, -the thrill of the new, -claim that your method is “revolutionary” and make extravagant claims about it’s effectiveness.

2. Give it a interesting name

Call your method something ear-catching and cool. If you can’t do that then come up with an approach which ideally can be reduced into a three letter acronym like TPR, NLP, CLL, ELF, PPP or TBI. If you only have two then just toss in a meaningless word.  Like ‘total’ in total physical response.  Could we have HHPR (half hearted physical response) or NMPR (not much physical response)?

The more complex the name the better. Make it sound complex and scientific if possible -don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about science, it doesn’t matter!  Just grab some sciencey sounding words and paste them together. The more obscure the better.  Take Neuro linguistic programming for example, (NLP!) even the practitioners state, with no apparent shame, that it has nothing to do with neuro science or linguistics! 

3. don’t really describe what it is

That is, tell people it’s a new ‘system’ or ‘approach’ (don’t call it a method!) that is concerned with the approach to humanistic and holistic autonomous learning spheres which takes account of students’ multiple intelligences and promotes student-centric learning. Or something like that. Alternatively just define it as whatever anyone says it is, like this:

A: It seems to me this is related to motivation?
B: yes, motivation plays a part in it.


A: Is it related to teacher identity in the technological classroom?
B: If you want it to be

3.5 be a man 

No method has ever been invented by a woman. 

4. tell people it works
Nothing succeeds like success. In the same way. nothing works like things that people say work!  Just keep telling people that your idea “really works” that the students “love it” and that you have seen great improvements and eventually someone will become your follower and start saying all this stuff for you. After a few years you’ll have a book out and be running training courses in your approach.

5. In case of emergencies

By this time your method becoming quite popular. This is when the backlash begins.  Don’t worry about those spoilsports pointing out that your theory is meaningless, just carry on and be even more vague than you were before. Tell your critic that what you do is not measurable by their methods, but only by whole body and mind convergence and the nourishment of the soul!  Let’s see them try to measure that.

6. If that doesn’t work

Weird theories are oddly resistant so don’t worry. Even if some bright spark shows you to be a complete fraud just nod sagely and say that “it’s not for everyone” and that “teacher’s and more importantly students can decide for themselves what works and what doesn’t”.  Another well worn trick is to throw out some of the troublesome bits of the theory and keep the popular bits. Strangely in EFL when something doesn’t work teachers are very reluctant to throw it out but would rather keep using bits of it, so you’ll still be able to sell books and appear at conferences. Also if you wait about 30 years your method will no doubt come back into fashion.

7. sit back and count the cash

Now you can relax and let your followers do all the work for you.  If you’re as successful as someone like Chomsky you can move out of the field together, reappearing with a book every now and then!  Don’t worry about being found out, the academic world is slow to process things and weighted towards the ones with the ideas, not those who point out they don’t work. 

So what are you waiting for, get cracking with your new theory and good luck!

Skimming and scanning

For those of you who are firm believers in teaching skimming and scanning feel free to skim this post and answer the questions at the end…you have 1 minute…go! For those of you, like me, who are more sceptical…read on.

This is the second in my “reading skills” series, following up the piece on prediction. Like prediction, skimming and scanning are very attractive to teachers as they make the rather mysterious process of reading eminently teachable. Without “reading skills” teaching reading would resemble teaching the ‘Cinderella skill’, listening. But should we teaching skimming and scanning at all? I will argue ‘no’ for two reasons. Firstly, skimming and scanning don’t accurate reflect the way people usually read and secondly because most students already know how to do them.

Skimming and scanning are pretty popular in EFL, with hundreds of web pages offering lesson plans for skimming and scanning classes. St Martins University are keen on them  as is the ‘teaching English’ website and Harmer includes lesson plans with these skills as targets. Textbooks like Oxford’s “Well read” and “Headway” include these activities and   Grellet’s book, which as Paran notes is probably responsible for the popularity of these skills in the TEFL world, has a whole section on “from scanning to skimming”. Telling though Grabe doesn’t mentioned them once in his book on the reading in a foreign language, something which Kerr describes as “eloquent commentary” (2009:29).

Skimming and Scanning are so pervasive that a large number of teachers, (like the one pictured above and me, for the longest time) have managed to convince themselves that this is actually how people read. But it isn’t. At least, not usually. Usually we read one word at a time as you’re probably reading now.

Skimming and scanning are classed as “expeditious reading” (Nation 2009:70) skimming is reading quickly and for the general or “gist” meaning. Scanning is trying to identify specific information in a text. The classic example was always a “name in a phone book” until phone books went the way of tape cassettes and chalk. Nowadays “bus timetable” is the most likely example. Not only is this a reading skill that doesn’t need to be taught, it’s a basic human skill that doesn’t need to be taught. People who disagree should read “where’s Wally”.

Gist in laymen’s terms means a general understanding devoid of specifics as in “I wasn’t really paying attention but I got the gist of what he was saying”.  But is this a teachable skill? Or even one that we should be teaching?

We may do reading activities like setting time limits for our students while reassuring them that they “only have to get the gist” but is this teaching them anything or merely expecting them to apply a skill we assume they already have. Is a teacher who says “skimming is just trying to get the general meaning” teaching or explaining a concept we expect students to already know? If it’s the former, we have failed as we haven’t ‘taught’ them how to do it; we’ve just explained what it is. If the latter, why do we assume they don’t know how to do this? After all plenty of monolingual EFL teachers seem to be able to manage skimming without prior instruction –hell they’re so good they can even teach it!

 Secondly, what exactly is reading for gist? If it were possible for me to read faster than I do now then I would do it. But sadly I can’t (so the pile of unread books and papers grows ever larger, staring accusingly at me). If a person reads for gist then they are necessarily losing something. Otherwise they are just reading. If I read faster than normal, then I ignore parts of the text –I miss bits out. These bits may be important, they may not. I just take my chances.

Often with skimming students are told to read the first and last sentences of a paragraph; or the first sentence, or the first and second sentences. Sometimes they are told to “run their eyes over the text” whatever that means. This advice might work at times but other times it may not. Would it work with the paragraph directly before this one? I think it possible could for a test question like “what is this paragraph about” but probably not for understanding the text. 
I have heard it argued that these techniques could be useful for EAP students looking through texts and trying to find useful ones in a hurry, or trying to locate relevant sections in a book, but students will almost certainly not be doing these things under timed conditions. They’ll probably while away many pointless hours in libraries reading the wrong books, -much like native speakers do. It’s also quite likely that once the “don’t use a dictionary –just get the gist” bullies are out of the picture and the students successfully make it onto their courses, they’ll probably sit there (sensibly in my opinion) with a text in one hand and a dictionary in the other slowly trying to make sense of whatever tortuously dull and impenetrable academic text they are unlucky enough to find themselves having to read.

In fact, and rather ironically, these skills seem to be most useful for doing English reading tests. That is we, the EFL community, design tests which require students to employ reading skills they probably already know and then ‘teach’ them these skills in order for them to pass the tests we wrote! Genius! Perhaps we should also invent writing upside tests and tests of underwater listening.

Don’t teach grandma to suck eggs

Skimming and scanning are at times, very useful; so useful in fact that every person who comes from a culture with a written language already knows how to do them.  Arguably though they are more useful to teachers than to students as they give us something to teach. Thornbury notes


Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist.”

The point he goes on to make, and one also made by Swan is that student likely already have reading skills in their L1. “Much of the teaching of reading skills is predicated on the assumption that learners do not already possess them” (Swan 2008:266) but they almost certainly do and we almost certainly don’t need to spend time teaching them.Swan and Walter in a piece called “teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time” refer to research which indicates that students will be able to use these reading skills automatically when their language reaches a proficient enough level.

In defence of Skimming and Scanning

There aren’t many defenders of skimming and scanning these days but one article written by Phillip Kerr could possibly be described as a “defence” but that wouldn’t really be accurate as Kerr lists criticism and then suggests that there might be some reasons why it might be OK to use them:

1. They aren’t very difficult and they don’t take much time and so they might motivate students to feel like they have achieved something.

2. Well-designed skimming and scanning activities can help students to decode and create meaning in a text.

3. The skills are short and though not perhaps helping students learn to read, may give them some impression about the text.

4. Good for tests

Number four has been already been discussed. Number two is the idea that these skills  belong to the psycholinguistic model of reading, criticised by Paran and Grabe. sampling a text is not how most people read, most of the time. 

But let me take a minute to talk about the other reasons. If you read the article you’ll notice Kerr wraps up his reasons in such apologetic language that you almost feel sorry for skimming and scanning and want to teach them just so they don’t get thrown in a bag with some Cuisenaire rods and drown. Kerr seems to be saying, “Well, look, we all know we don’t need to teach these skills but they’re awfully quick and they might make the students feel good about themselves and oh please! It’s awfully cold outside; these skills have no place to go!”

But don’t feel sorry for these skills. Feel sorry instead for the poor students who are forced to do them, and the poor teachers filling up their DELTA lesson plans with skimming and scanning targets. Isn’t it time we stopped teaching students to do things they can already do?


Why we need evidence part 3: expert opinion

What do Rod Ellis, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener all have in common?  Yes, they’re all white, native speakers and they’re all men in a profession which is largely female, non-white and non-native speaker. But that’s not what I was aiming for, no they are all TEFL “authorities”, and probably for whatever reason, the most recognisable names in TEFL/applied linguistics.

This isn’t a post attacking them. I happen to like all of them (though Swan is my fav!) but it’s more to question the authority that is afforded to them. Harmer for example is a teacher and a teacher trainer. Is he better or more capable than any other teacher trainer? -I have no idea and I have no idea how you would even work that out. Like Thornbury, Harmer has written a very influential book which means he’s certainly dedicated and driven, but is what he says any more reliable than a teacher who hasn’t written a book?

I have taken a lot of useful advice from Harmer’s practice of English teaching, as I’m sure many people reading this have. But I’ve also seen him recommend teachers test students to find out their learner styles in spite of the evidence he himself quotes against it. I’ve also seen him promote NLP, without a single word of criticism. though in this regard he’s no different from the British Council which seems to have no problem promoting either of these things.

Thornbury scores more highly in both these areas. He’s also refreshingly honest about some of ELT’s more entrenched practices which have dubious credibility. But one has to wonder about Dogme, criticised, -somewhat ironically perhaps, -by Harmer here.

I like both Harmer and Thornbury’s books, but neither men, as far as I can tell, are researchers. Their words should have just as much (or just as little) weight as anyone else’s. Even if they were researchers and leading researchers in their field, like Rod Ellis for example, it wouldn’t mean that their opinion on a given issue is necessarily the right one. For example Swan takes issue with Ellis’ whole approach to language teaching, -so which expert are we to believe?

In the world of evidence based research, opinion albeit “expert” opinion ranks dead last, (and sometimes doesn’t appear at all) -and for good reason. The whole purpose of research and the power behind the scientific method derives from the fact that people are often wrong, and often wrong about being wrong. The Nobel Prize winning Scientist Linus Pauling serves as an important cautionary tale:
After becoming convinced of its worth, Pauling took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds. Excited by his own perceived results, he researched the clinical literature and published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. He began a long clinical collaboration with the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in 1971 on the use of intravenous and oral vitamin C as cancer therapy for terminal patients (wikipedia)

I’ve highlighted a very important sentence in bold here. Pauling believed that vitamin C really really worked and thus ignored his scientific training. Other people may take this idea seriously because such a famous researcher said it. They may even use an authority figure’s opinion as evidence of a point they are making, -and I have documented cases of that here. This is often called the “argument from authority” for obvious reasons.

But how does someone become an authority? Well, you need to get people to listen to you. Imagine tomorrow I announced that I would be starting a new teaching method called “langology”. I laid out all the precepts and techniques and wrote a passionate call for teachers to use it. How many people would? I’m guessing the number would be zero. Yet there are others who could affect the way thousands of teachers teach, just by doing this, get books published off the back of it and even stir up controversy in the TEFL world. Yet the people who suggest new theories or give advice about best practice are really only giving you their opinions.

Of course, opinions may come in a range of probabilities depending on the claims being made, but we should never forget that they are, no matter how accurate they sound, just opinions. And as such, the opinion of say Dr. James Ascher (the Dr. appears on all the TPR stuff) that TPR is good for kinesthetic students, is exactly and entirely as valid as my saying that “langology” will not only make you fluent in any language in a matter of weeks but it will also make you more successful, handsome and probably slightly taller. And importantly should be given exactly that much weight. This is unlikely to happen though, but why?

I can’t really answer that question but I would guess that it has something to do with the Halo effect.  This is what makes us think a celebrity giving us insurance advice is worth listening to or what leads to better looking students getting higher marks for an essay. Also perhaps it relates to how easily we are convinced by authority figures. Either way, it’s something we should be on our guard against. The next time someone at work, round the water cooler, mentions that “Harmer is big on drilling!” or that Ellis doesn’t think contrastive analysis is useful,  remember that in the absence of evidence, this is just an opinion.

When nothing is better than something

Dr. Duncan MacDougall found that after humans die their weight changes by exactly 21 grams. He carried out his research on terminal patients and weighed them before and after death. He also carried out the same tests on dogs and found no weight change. No one can explain this strange phenomenon and the religiously minded as well as the New York Times wasted no time attributing it to the weight of the human soul.

An incredible and disturbing finding, were it true. 

Which it isn’t. 


While it’s completely true that what this experiment was carried out and that those were its findings, it’s equally true that it was a naff experiment. It’s easy to think any research is better than no research but bad research is often pretty useless; it tells us nothing and worse, sometimes it can even be dangerous. Dr. MacDdougall’s experiments were conducted on 6 people which is a horribly small number to warrant such extravagant claims. And that’s not all, quoting here from the blog “rationally speaking” the research had a number of other problems:

Not only was the experiment never repeated (by either MaDougall or anyone else), but his own notes (published in American Medicine in March 1907) show that of the six data points, two had to be discarded as “of no value”; two recorded a weight drop, followed by additional losses later on (was the soul leaving bit by bit?); one showed a reversal of the loss, then another loss (the soul couldn’t make up its mind, leaving, re-entering, then leaving for good); and only one case actually constitutes the basis of the legendary estimate of ¾ of an ounce. With data like these, it’s a miracle the paper got published in the first place.

Second, as was pointed out immediately by Dr. Augustus P. Clarke in a rebuttal also published in American Medicine, MacDougall failed to consider another obvious hypothesis: that the weight loss (assuming it was real) was due to evaporation caused by the sudden rise in body temperature that occurs when the blood circulation stops and the blood can no longer be air-cooled by the lungs. This also elegantly explains why the dogs showed no weight loss: as is well known, they cool themselves by panting, not sweating like humans do.

Ah, you may say, this was a long time ago before we had proper research. Well, while it’s true that scientific techniques improve all the time, research now, like research then is carried out by humans. So could a badly designed study get newspaper headlines these days? Over to Andrew Wakefield who ‘discovered’ a link between vaccinations and autism, research which led to, and continues to lead to parents not vaccinating their kids and thus the return of previously controlled diseases, such as mumps and measles as well as occasional deaths. Wakefield, who was eventually struck off the medical register, conducted his research on exactly 12 children so, twice as many as MacDougall’s study.  This didn’t stop theDaily Mail and other papers creating huge panic with this information.
Now small studies are not always problematic, but newspapers tend to have an undue influence on what people think and a story which might not get much (or any) attention in academia because of problems, such as its sample size, could have considerable influence if published in a newspaper. I wrote here about Memrise the amazing new technology which mean you can learn a new language in only 22 hours (disclaimer, for “language” read “some words” , for “22 hours” read “three months” and for “amazing new technology” read “flashcards and mnemonics”). Memrise is a good example of how the media can create excitement about something that really isn’t all that exciting
Recently there was a TEFL article in the guardian making the claim that the “argument was over, the facts were in” and that explicit grammar teaching was a must for EFL. Catherine Walker’s bold claims were marred by a couple of issues. Firstly the article wasn’t in a peer reviewed journal, it was in the Guardian (though even journals can get it wrong, and do, regularly, and spectacularly) and journalists are not experts and are therefore much more likely to let things slide that academics would probably pick up. Being a newspaper Walker didn’t have to provide any evidence for her claims, but when prodded by commentators listed the following:

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.
Gass, S. & L. Selinker. 2008. Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition). New York: Routledge/Taylor.
Spada, N. & Y. Tomita. 2010. Interactions between type of instruction and type of
language feature: a meta-analysis. Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.
Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. 2008. Form-focused instruction: isolated or integrated?
TESOL Quarterly 42: 181-207.

To be fair to Walker, meta-analysis are the creme de la creme of research and are positioned at the very top of of the hierarchy of evidence pyramid. However there are still some problems with the piece. The first flaw is that the headline for the article is misleading. Articles from 2010, 2008 and 2000 can’t be run in 2012 with the headline “the evidence is finally in”, without stretching the “finally” beyond recognition. Secondly the headline makes the claim that evidence shows that grammar teaching is effective, yet later in the article this is watered down to:


However, evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.

That is, if you are using the Communicative Approach, it is better to have grammar taught explicitly. So this is not so much a debate about the value of grammar teaching but a debate about the value of teaching grammar explicitly within a certain method. The title of the article may have had us all rushing back to the oft mocked (but pretty widely used) Grrammar Translation method.  Another possible problem is the conflict of interests. Walker has a written a number of grammar textbooks and while this doesn’t mean she’s wrong, the possibility of bias is there; “shock! grammar teacher claims teaching grammar works!”. 
So language articles are often annoying because they get tweeted and retweeted when the findings may be problematic or in some cases nonexistent, like a story doing the rounds  at the moment. Apparently, English is not a Germanic language but a Scandinavian one. For years linguistics have been wrong and this new research shows conclusively that English comes from Scandinavian not from Old English. Except it doesn’t because, as far as I can discover, there is no research. Yes, there are researchers and yes there are news articles and yes there is even some evidence of conference talks but I can’t seem to find a paper published in a major peer-reviewed journal (please someone link to it if you can find it).
Now, I’m out of my depth with the argument as to whether English is or isn’t a Scandinavian language perhaps it really is but what I can say is that a massive claim like this, if correct, would make the careers of both the authors. I can also safely state that a claim which has such large potential, needs a equally large amount of evidence to back it up. To use the Sagan Standard “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Judging by the comments on some of the blogs that have reported this, I’m going to tentatively suggest that that evidence will not be forthcoming.
The king of getting media attention with little research is of course, Chomsky. Slayer of the evil behaviorists, discoverer of the mysterious UG, Noam wins the prize by virtue of having done exactly 0 research to test his theories. His ideas, which have held sway over linguistics for 60 years, were thought up by him, and then left for others to argue about.  People who actually took the trouble to look into and test Chomsky’s claims found him to be wrong, wrong and more wrong.*  Geoffry Sampson writes:

Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’

Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (2005:47)


Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum

*I’m really really out of my depth on Chomsky but if someone wants to come and put me right I’ll be happy to listen.

Fantastic Dr. Fox

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation tex2html_wrap_inline1393 under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the tex2html_wrap_inline1395 of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone

What you just read is complete and utter unadulterated nonsense.

But it’s important nonsense.


The quote is from a published paper called “transgressing the boundaries” by a physics professor at New York University called Alan Sokal. Sokal had a theory that much of what was published in literature journals at the time as post-modernism was nothing more than meaningless pseudo-babble and he decided to test that theory. The essay was submitted to the journal “social text” and was published. Later Sokal admitted that the whole thing was a parody. This became known as the Sokal affair. The fact that what was essentially meaningless rubbish was published in a prestigious journal is the central theme of this post.
So ask yourself this question; would you be able to see through complex sounding hogwash if you saw it?
The answer is most likely “no”.
As Ben Goldacre notes here, the use of complex terms and irrelevant but scientific sounding information tends to make it harder for non-experts to spot poppycock. This is a worrying finding for the field of TEFL in which teachers with very little training may have trouble distinguishing legitimate but complex descriptions of linguistic and mental phenomena (inverted pseudo-cleft sentences, lexical priming and voiced alveolar fricatives) from equally impressive sounding balderdash.
Jargon can often mislead people and  “blinding with science” really is a thing. In the same way that putting on a white coat, a suit or a uniform gives someone an air of authority, big words and fancy terms can cow critics and help to convince others of the legitimacy of an idea. So can “dressing up” daft ideas in TEFL help to give them more credibility?  Here’s a quote from the Neuro-linguistic programing TEFL representatives Revell and Norman:

The Meta Model in NLP defines and challenges linguistic imprecision. It consists of a list of different kinds of distortions, deletions and generalisations (often called Meta Model violations) and a parallel list of suggestions for challenging them (= Challenges) The Meta Model is too large to be described here in its entirety…but we can start with prt of it known as the precision model. (English teaching professional)

NLP writers are not the only ones guilty of this. Swan in a piece criticising the directions of EFL, notes that at IATEFL the array of complex sounding presentations is a worrying phenomena which might be discouraging for new teachers and notes here that the balance between language teaching and those things which are peripheral to it seems somewhat off. In another article he charts the rise of this kind of terminology, which he describes as “impenetrable”, during his days as a young teacher and adds that after grappling with these ideas he came to the conclusion that “If I couldn’t understand a professional book, perhaps it wasn’t my fault after all.” 


Dr Fox

And it’s not just laypeople who can be fooled. In the 1970s an actor was paid to pretend to be an academic; the impressive sounding Dr. Fox. He gave a completely meaningless lecture on the made-up subject of “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” to a group of psychologists, therapists and educators. He practised the speech the night before and despite this, comes across as sounding very authoritative and crammed his speech full of intellectual sounding nonsense. The experiment was carried out three times and each time he was rated as being stimulating and those in the audience felt that they had learnt something from the lecture. I think that this is a cautionary piece of research for those of us in the TEFL world especially when watching conference speeches

Pluralistic ignorance.

One more factor which might stop you pointing out how awfully nude the king looks is pluralistic ignorance. Basically this is the situation whereby everyone secretly knows something is fishy, but they think everyone else is a believer and so are reluctant to stick their neck out and be the one to invite derision. Last year I was going to give a short presentation skeptically tackling reading skills and learning styles at a small EAP conference in the East Midlands. I ended up getting cold feet the day before and backing out. I had a horrible feeling that the room would fill with an embarrassed silence, my peers whispering “how did this guy ever get a job teaching EAP!?” I do regret that now because as the people who follow this website have shown me, I’m not the only one who thinks there are some dodgy ideas floating around out there.

I think we need to be less afraid to criticise sacred cows, common sense and received wisdom of EFL and education in general, it’s very healthy for the industry as a whole. Science uses complex terminology because it talks about very complex ideas. Calling a negative thought a “meta model violation” doesn’t, to my mind, move us any further forward and is just so much cargo cult science. We have no reason to try to outdo scientists or throw around impressive sounding words, -as English language teachers surely we should be skilled at, and proud of making things as accessible as possible. We need to be on guard against this kind of language, as “Tom” at Englishdroid writes:

superficially impressive jargon, when it’s not obscuring the bloody obvious is all too often obscuring the bloody ridiculous or at best highly questionable. Against such a background, is it any wonder that so many dangerously irrational and anti-scientific ideas flourish