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


Linguistic myth #2 Swearing shows a lack of intelligence, morals and a limited vocabulary

Warning: if you object to swearing and ‘foul’ language you should probably stop reading now. On second thoughts, -read it. It might do you some good.

According to the website “cuss control” Swearing is bad for the following reasons:

Swearing Imposes a Personal Penalty 
It gives a bad impression
It makes you unpleasant to be with
It endangers your relationships
It’s a tool for whiners and complainers
It reduces respect people have for you
It shows you don’t have control
It’s a sign of a bad attitude
It discloses a lack of character
It’s immature
It reflects ignorance
It sets a bad example

Swearing is Bad for Society
It contributes to the decline of civility
It represents the dumbing down of America
It offends more people than you think
It makes others uncomfortable
It is disrespectful of others
It turns discussions into arguments
It can be a sign of hostility
It can lead to violence

Swearing corrupts the English language
It’s abrasive, lazy language
It doesn’t communicate clearly
It neglects more meaningful words
It lacks imagination
It has lost its effectiveness

Now I can’t be entirely sure that this website isn’t a Poe, (can swearing really have ‘lost it’s effectiveness’ while also possibly leading to violence?) but there are certainly people with a strong dislike of what is often called “bad language”. It’s a real shame in a way that some bad language has such a ‘bad rap’ since as Melissa Mohr’s  new book “Holy Sh*t” illustrates swearing is one of the most fascinating parts of language. The book details the rich history of swearwords, and the title is a clever nod to the (up to now) two most popular topics for taboo language, namely the sacred (holy) and the profane (shit).

Mohr’s book begins with Roman swearing and she shows, through the types of insults people used, what a profoundly different view of sexuality the Romans had to us. She notes that sexually ‘passive’ people (female or male) were considered worthy of ridicule and adds that accusing some of performing (but not receiving) fellatio or cunnilingus would have been “the worst of the worst, the most obscene most offensive things you could say in Latin”(2013:37) Yet these words have somehow become our most polite words for the act. This is perhaps a testament to the prestige that Latin has among English speakers. 

She goes on to detail how, the notion of ‘worst’ has historically swung between the religious and the physical. It is interesting to see how bad language can act as a barometer of morality. In the religious middle ages, swearing an oath on some part of God’s body, such as God’s bones was the most taboo thing you could say since it was believed that god actually suffered an injury when His name was taken in vain. Ironically (from our perspective) at the same time words like piss, shit and cunt were perfectly acceptable, -and in fact where we get street names like Sherborne Lane (Shite-burn-lane) and Gropecunt lane, a name which was at one time as apt, for it’s purpose presumably, as ‘church street’.

Swear words are in fact one of the most fascinating parts of language, a point testified by so many people’s desire to learn the ‘bad words’ of a foreign language first. profanity has power, as Mohr notes  “swearwords are the closest thing we have to violence without actual physical contact” (2013:225). But their power doesn’t stop there. Scientists have recently shown that swearing can actually reduce pain (except among those who swear frequently). Swear words are also stored on a different side of the brain to the rest of language and subsequently people with aphasia despite not being to speak can still swear. As Mohr notes, those with dementia will often lose the ability to speak, but retain the ability to swear.

As to the idea that swearing shows a lack of intelligence and a limited vocabulary well, as Mohr notes “It is probably true in some cases that people who swear frequently are uneducated and with impoverished vocabularies and imaginations…but it is important to remember that these attitudes were brought to us by the same people who declared that it was a sin to boldly split an English infinitive“(1013:209) what we’re probably seeing is a correlation, not a causation:

But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words’ sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one’s morals (Pinker -‘What the fuck, why we curse)

One interesting point that Mohr brings up is that the most taboo language in society is not longer the religious or even the physical. The F-word and even the C-word have been superseded by the N-word. I found it rather reassuring that the society I live in considers racial insults to be the worst expletives. 
So swearing relieves pain, is among our most descriptive language, builds social bonds, creates humour and expresses emotion. It’s also incredibly versatile and can perform most grammatical functions.  Dismissing swearing, or even worse trying to get rid of it is to ignore the vast depth of cultural significance hidden by the grawlix (@#$%&!).

You can listen to an interview with the author on the excellent lexicon valley podcast.


So this is my first ever guest blog. Simon Andrewes (@simonbandrewes), who wrote a response to my learning styles piece has now written a reponse to my previous response to his response(?). Simon has a huge amount of experience teaching and has written acrticles for MET, ETP and HLT. He has very kindly given me permission to post this here. It’s a good read -Enjoy (^_^)
[IN REPLY TO THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH, Russell Mayne. MET 22.4. Oct 2013. 53-55]
Russell Mayne wrote about research in MET22.2 and in particular about Learning Style (LS) theory, for which, he insisted, there was no evidential support. I replied in MET22.3 saying I found a “weak” version of LS theory to be useful for my teaching practice. In MET22.4 Russell criticised my position on various fronts, so I would like an opportunity to defend and clarify it.
The significant divide between English language theorists and teachers that Russell says I “further reinforce” – whereas in fact all I do is observe it – is hardly a controversial issue and indeed Russell himself provides quotes from two highly respected theoretician-practitioners, Scott Thornbury and Henry Widdowson, that back me up. I feel flattered and partially vindicated by the good company I find myself in.
Russell takes me to task on several fronts:
1.       I do not recognise the complexity of the research-practice problem;
2.       My argument is based on a fantasy in which I set up straw man villains against noble teachers;
3.       I dismiss research without the bother of having to do it or read it;
4.       I use my lengthy classroom experience to position myself as the voice of authority, which is tantamount to an “anything goes”  attitude to teaching;
5.       I make too much of the weak version of LS which may be true but is at the same time obvious, uncontroversial and un-noteworthy;
6.       I mix up LS and MI (Multiple Intelligences) theory.  
 1.       I confess I was writing entirely from a teacher’s point of view. I was not trying to view the problem objectively from all sides but was giving voice to a disillusion with theory that I have observed among colleagues, theory that is often perceived as imposed and lacking a comprehensive understanding of our practice. I also confess to sharing their disillusion for much the same reasons that they expressed.
 2.       I identify myself first and foremost as a teacher, not a noble one, more of a run-of-the-mill dogged practitioner. I do not see my “villains” as straw men as their influence is only too real. I might categorise the villains into two types: those who are in the pay of publishers and promoting their materials in a way that often comes across as facile, a sort of panacea for difficult classroom situations; and those who advance classroom methodologies that are remote and clearly not based on a study and analysis of actual classroom practice.
3.       So Russell is right in saying I dismiss research but he is rather unkind in saying I do so without the bother of having to do it or read it myself. In fact, I enjoy research and think it can be useful in its own right, without any direct reference to classroom practice. Indeed, this kind of research may be the most valuable in its disinterest in proving or disproving practical considerations. I would challenge Russell’s implication that it is a bother to carry out research and think it can be a privilege, or a pleasure. Just as teaching can be.
4.       In dismissing research, I use my experience to position myself as the voice of authority, says Russell, backing up his argument with a quote from Widdowson’s Defining issues in English language teaching: “Teachers who claim to be simply practitioners with no interest in theory “conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession”.  Now, throw me a quote by Widdowson and I am likely to catch it in midair and swallow it down like a trained seal. I agree 100% with Widdowson’s argument, as I often do.
 When I write “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” I do not mean “anything goes”; I mean that that the teacher is in a position to apply critical and reflective thinking to teaching practice in order to evaluate it. As a teacher I am conscious of the limited and in many ways limiting vision of the classroom. What happens in the classroom may indeed provide me with a too subjective and non-scientific view of the variety and diversity of practice in classrooms across the world. Evidence from the classroom is too restricted by the confines of its four walls to make too many generalisations from.
5.       Moving on to the essence of the LS debate, Russell says the weak version amounts to nothing more than saying different students have different study preferences but there is no evidence that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.
Here Russell is talking about research evidence and seems to take it for granted that evidence from classroom practice doesn’t count. Yet, with Penny Ur (ETP issue 21 Oct2001Check It Out 5 – 8), I would insist that a or the primary and certainly a valid source of meaningful theory is that drawn from our own experience. Secondary (research/theoretical) sources can and should be drawn on to confirm or contradict conclusions for our teaching convictions that we reached via our primary source. As such, I find that the weak version of LS theory provides me with a check, a reminder that not everybody learns in the same way as I do and it makes me more sensitive to other learning paradigms. In fact, I am convinced I have built up evidence of this in classroom observations of the way learners learn.
As for the hard version of LS theory, I can happily agree with Russell when he says there is no research evidence to support it.
6.       Not only do I simplistically confuse LS with “study preferences”, to return to Russell’s critique, I mix up LS and MI theory, in which Howard Gardner – Russell tells us – redefines the concept of aptitudes as “intelligences”, and which also, apparently, lacks any scientific credibility.
I do not want to speak of scientific credibility, but I can see there are things in MI that serve a purpose. If different students have different aptitudes, then it seems reasonable to suppose those varying aptitudes will have some bearing on how they learn things. To follow up an example cited by Russell, I confess to crawling across the floor with the youngest learners I have taught and whether I was fostering “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” in doing so I cannot say. But did it work? Well, I think it might have, and we all enjoyed it and I certainly don’t think it got in the way of learning. I felt at that moment the child needed that crawling activity and would not have learnt so well without it. I would probably do it again, thinking I was furthering learning.
So, asks Russell finally, do I think we should teach according to our students’ star signs or the colour of their aura, as these have, in his words, as much credibility as the theories I am defending? Well, no, I don’t actually, because I have no primary evidence that these things work in practice. But I would not be loath to give them a go, if I saw a positive effect in it.
In conclusion, “experience is a good bet in the absence of evidence”, Russell concedes. But here, he shows he does not really value the primary evidence of the classroom. He is talking about the secondary evidence of the university, the ivory tower. And thus the gulf between classroom practice and theory is maintained by Russell’s reluctance to accept the classroom teacher’s ability to draw a directly meaningful theory from her own experience. And the two communities continue to talk past each other.

In defence of duolingo

Avid followers of EBEFL will remember I came down quite hard on the memrise app before. Looking back at that article it’s clear I was more critical of the 22 hours-to-learn-a-language claim than the app itself. I did try the app and it wasn’t much fun and quite buggy. In this article I’m going to look at another app which is quite fun, -the rather good Duolingo. I want to compare it to a French class I took recently because I think neither of these methods would lead to anyone becoming fluent in a language but I wonder, on the whole, which is a better supporter of language learning.


  My French Class
 nothing, nada, zip, zilch
£100 for 10 weeks, 2 hours per week plus a £30 text book

 Should probably add here that I quit my awful French class after about 4 classes. As did, I reckon,  around half of the class. I didn’t get any money back so each lesson was about £25.

 Winner: Duolingo


My French Class
 Grammar translation
erm? ‘traditional’?

Here’s a lesson plan from one of the classes. First 40 minutes were taken up with a reading exercise. We read a text and tried to answer the questions “True” or “False”. The Teacher then went through the answers. To shake up the second half she opted for….wait for it…a 40 minute reading excercise! Don’t worry this time it wasn’t True/False. The last 20 minutes were spent on speaking practice. 10 minutes of which were spent explaining and then 5 minutes on practicing pron, -so all in all we got 5 minutes of speaking in 2 hours.

https://youtube.googleapis.com/v/1ReVwucwF-s&source=udsSome may argue that ‘Grammar translation’ is bad and it certainly isn’t perfect, but Phillip Kerr has made a good defence of using first language and translation in the classroom, though he is clear that old fashioned sentence translations of the kind you see in Japanese schools is not what he’s advocating. I think Duolingo falls down a bit here, but it’s hard to see how a computer program, could do anything else.

Sure, it’s frustrating when you get “une” and “un” wrong and lose a point. Perhaps the developers could introduce an accuracy scale so you could decide how picky you want the program to be.

Winner: draw

First language use

My French Class
 about 50% of the time
most of the time

Duolingo asks you to translate about, I would guess 50% of the time and all the instructions are in your language not the target language. In contrast, my French teacher hardly ever spoke French.  

Winner: Duolingo


My French Class
 ‘the apples are red’
‘I like hiking’

Duolingo is horribly inauthentic. You’ll quickly find yourself getting sick of ‘red apples’. The French class was slightly better as it used a textbook aimed at university students. I got to do sentences like “I like hiking” (I don’t) and “have you ever been Canoeing?” (I haven’t). As mike Boyle notes, sentences like “the horse eats bread” may “have no real meaning or relevance to learners” but so what? My feeling is that ‘the noun verbs the noun’ is probably the aim of this lesson. If you can say “the horse eats bread” you could probably say “the man eats bread” or even “I eat vegetables” etc. I think the app could be improved by adding more (interesting) phrases, which have a higher frequency count  They could even teach the task instructions in the target language and then start using those, instead of using “write this in French”.
 Winner: My French class


My French Class
blah blah blah

Teacher talking time on Duolingo is almost 0. There are occasinal grammar points in bubbles. My French teacher on the other hand, although being a nice enough person, like so many teachers she couldn’t help regaling her captive audience with jokes and funny stories. In the lesson I talked about earlier, students spoke for about 5 minutes of the class, this wasn’t unusual.

 Winner: Duolingo

Awareness of Level

My French Class
blah blah blah


Duolingo comes out on top again. It knows exactly what I can and can’t do because it constantly asks me. Sure it might be a bit too picky about la and le for my liking but it remembers perfectly my mistakes and gives me the option of working on weaknesses. My French teacher on the other hand found it hard to remember my name. 

Winner: Duolingo
Time with teacher

My French Class
 whenever, wherever for however long
Monday 6-8

In a class of 15 you may have a few dedicated minutes with each student. Certainly you can’t spend hours tutoring only one member of the class. Duolingo can not only do this, it also works whenever I want to work. My French class was 6-8 on Mondays which meant making sure I had nothing planned at that time and gong after work with no time to eat. Of course, you can’t ask Duolingo specific questions if you get stuck and that’s a problem.

Winner: Draw

Learner styles

My French Class
what style are you?

My French teacher made a point of asking all of us what learning style we preferred. Presumably this was to cater to visual (and so on) students. She then went ahead and did what she was planning to do anyway. Luckily, Duolingo isn’t bothered what kind of learner I think I am. It also sensible gives me visual, auditory and kinesthetic input.This is not a good thing because the theory of learning styles is correct, but rather because it makes the material far more interesting.

Winner: Duolingual

Enjoyment and motivation 

My French Class
 ‘you got to the next level!’
I quit after 4 weeks

This is where Duolingo really gets it right. It has a friendly bright interface and manages to gamify language learning in the right way.  My French class was dull, I didn’t feel I was learning or that the teacher knew much about me or my level. Duolingual is constantly making little beeps and showing graphs, all of which is nonsense but it makes me feel I’m progressing, which is vital. Motivation is one of the most important things in language learning and if the student stops coming to your class, all your qualifications, methods and authentic materials mean nothing.
Winner: Duolingo
This app will not lead anyone to be fluent in a foreign language but it might help. And in terms of helping I would say it is far superior to the language class I took and other language classes I have taken in the past. In the UK, where 40% of language deptartments face closure and where only 15% of the population claim to be able to hold a conversation in any foreign language, anything that encourages or makes language learning easier is a good thing. More power to Duolingo’s elbow I say!


Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching

If you had to teach a lesson in which you were required to discover students’ blood types or star signs in order to tailor lessons according to the results, you might feel that this was both inappropriate and a waste of time. You may even argue that knowing whether your student was a Pisces or O negative couldn’t possibly help her to learn English because star signs, like blood types have no evidence of validity. However, TEFL teachers all over the world routinely and enthusiastically engage in this kind of testing. What is more, this kind of ‘vacuous nonsense’ is promoted by leading TEFL authorities, is the subject of talks at IATEFL, is considered an essential part of CELTA training and is promoted in journals and on the websites of Universities.

Despite having as little credibility as astrology, various brain-based myths exist in education. Perhaps the mostly widely believed myth is the idea that students will learn better when information is presented to them in their preferred learning styles. This myth was believed by 93% of teachers surveyed in one study (Dekker et al 2012), which is a remarkable number when it’s noted that the idea of learning styles has never been shown to be valid.

What happened to OG?
A further problem with the popular VAK model is the choice of senses it opts for. VAK, sometimes known as VAKOG stands for visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory. These would seem to map onto the ‘traditional senses’ humans are supposed to have, but this is not as clear as it first seems. Firstly, there is the question of why the numerous other human senses, such as the sense of balance, pain, time and temperature, are missing. If we are happy to stick with the ‘traditional senses’ then it seems odd that ‘touch’ is substituted by the ‘kinaesthetic’, sense which is the sense of motion. Further, why, in discussions of learner styles are the final OG so often absent? It is perhaps unkind to suggest that the whole concept starts to unravel when we imagine catering for students whose ‘dominant modality’ is ‘smell’ or ‘taste’. This idea has been lampooned by satirical newspaper ‘the onion’ with an article entitled ‘parents of nasal learners, demand odour-based curriculum’. The ludicrousness of this should be enough to stop VAK on its own but no, it trundles on seemingly oblivious to its own internal contradictions.

One dominant style?
Just how a teacher can separate out a student who learns visually and one who learns kinaesthetically is very unclear to me. Websites suggest that kinaesthetic students like to move things around and touch them, but they are still going to have to use their eyes in order to do this. Another classic is to advise them to take notes (note: that is a University web site). The only problem is that anyone taking notes must also be listening and looking at what they’re writing, so how is this kinaesthetic?

Why the VAK love
Coffield et al identified 80 different paradigms, and only one of these was VAK(OG).

· convergers versus divergers

· verbalisers versus imagers

· holists versus serialists

· deep versus surface learning

· activists versus reflectors

· pragmatists versus theorists

· adaptors versus innovators

· assimilators versus explorers

· field dependent versus field independent

· globalists versus analysts

· assimilators versus accommodators

· imaginative versus analytic learners

Now are all these valid or only some? If they’re all valid then don’t we have an ethical duty to find out our students ‘total’ learning styles and test for all 80? If some are more valid, then which ones and who chose and how did they know? There is a clear problem here. Simply put, they can’t all be correct. These criticisms beg the question why are learning styles, particularly the VAK model, so popular?

Personalisation: the Forer effect
Whenever I get taking to another teacher about learning styles, which happens probably a bit too often for their liking, I invariably have a conversation that goes something like this.

Me: …and that’s why learning styles isn’t a particularly useful concept.

Teacher: hmmm yeah I see (pause)…I’m a really visual person, me.

This is all too reminiscent of commenting to a friend, with incredulity on the popularity of horoscopes only to have them nod and say ‘well a Sagittarius would say that.’ Horoscopes might actually give us some insight into the popularity of learning styles. How true would you say the following is about you?

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

Betram Forer’s students were told that this was an evaluation of their personalities but actually they all got exactly the same results. Despite this his students on average rated the feedback as being very accurate (4.26 out of 5). In short, in the same way some people can see the face of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, (how does anyone know what she looked like anyway?) many people can see something relating to themselves in something which could be true of just about anyone. Compare this with a learning styles questionnaire:

1. When I operate new equipment I generally:
a) read the instructions first
b) listen to an explanation from someone who has used it before
c) go ahead and have a go, I can figure it out as I use it

2. When I need directions for travelling I usually:
a) look at a map
b) ask for spoken directions
c) follow my nose and maybe use a compass

3. When I cook a new dish, I like to:
a) follow a written recipe
b) call a friend for an explanation
c) follow my instincts, testing as I cook

4. If I am teaching someone something new, I tend to:
a) write instructions down for them
b) give them a verbal explanation
c) demonstrate first and then let them have a go

5. I tend to say:
a) watch how I do it
b) listen to me explain
c) you have a go

Learning styles questionnaires are similar to horoscopes (and personality tests) because they seem to have been specifically designed for you. We are so fascinated with ourselves that things like this can bypass our critical facilities and head straight to our emotions. “I can’t read maps! I always just follow my nose! OMG! this is totally me! I’m totally kinaesthetic!” the idea of finding out “what kind of person one is” has some eternal and deep appeal’ (Pashler et al 2008:117)

You may also have noticed something missing from this list? It is reminiscent of the famous loaded question “when was the last time you beat your wife?” The questions presuppose you actually have a learning style. There are stubborn folk who won’t play along and chose (above) something like A, B, C, C, B which seems to render the whole thing redundant, but don’t fear, they are labelled multimodal! I love the quote on that site “Multimodal learners can take in information by using more than one method”, -ah! You mean, like all normal human beings! I see.

The problem is basically that if you believe in, and accept something, no stubborn facts are going to change your mind. If your back was cured after you went to a
chiropractor or had acupuncture, then neither explanations of the placebo effect, or the mass of tests that have shown these two things to be ineffective is going to change your mind. Even something as ridiculous as horoscopes where it is clearly and demonstrably unfeasible still has millions of believers and may even affect people’s lives in serious ways. Astrology is in most newspapers daily and it’s ‘experts’ are rich and famous. Astronomers on the other hand have Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. True-believers will just dismiss all of this with a wave of the hand, and the common refrain, ‘Well I think it’s useful.

Back to Front
Trying to publish an article on learning styles is easy, -trying to publish one saying they are not real is much harder. I dunno, call me old fashioned but when you’re suggesting that something exists, isn’t it up to you to provide the evidence? If tell you I saw ghosts or aliens, you’re going to want to see some convincing evidence. In the world of publishing however, unlikely interesting sounding ideas (like precognition) will get you published ten times faster than something pointing out that that probably isn’t true.

This is evidenced by the huge number of articles on learning styles out there. Here is a tiny sample of some of the articles I found relating to EFL and learning styles:

· The learning style preferences of ESL students

· Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom

· Match or mismatch? Learning styles and teaching styles in EFL

· The Relationship between Gender and Learning Styles in Internet-Based Teaching-A Study From Kuwait

· A cross‐cultural study of Taiwanese and Kuwaiti EFL students’ learning styles and multiple intelligences

· The learning styles of Japanese students

· Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice

· Bridging the cultural gap: A study of Chinese students’ learning style preferences

· Assessment of language learning strategies used by Palestinian EFL learners

Not only is it widely accepted, it also seems to be under some kind of magically protection. People write articles, like one recently in ELTJ, listing everything that is wrong with the idea, and then note “but we should continue to use them as they are a useful concept.” (Hatami 2012) Harmer, among others say pretty much the same thing. Call me old fashioned but if we have no evidence something exist, despite decades of testing, we might want to think carefully about what that tells us. If we are to accept their conclusion then Horoscopes and blood types should surely also be part of our teaching arsenal as, ‘it is clear that they […] address self-evident truths’ (Harmer 2007:93) and ‘facilitate appreciation for the divergent approaches to thinking and learning’ (Hatami 2012:2) Whatever that means.

The least worst solution

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Scott Thornbury usually comes off quite well on EBEFL. He writes (somewhat) criticially about things like learning styles, reading skills and NLP. However there is one quote of his which bothers me. When writing about the image problem TEFL suffers from in “the unbearable lightness of EFL” he divides the world into the bare foot, ‘sandals and candles’ type of EFLer and the more academic type. He rejects both and offers us a “third way”.

When Clemente wrote to ELTJ to criticise his article he shot back with another article in which he wrote, “the fact is that ELT is at risk of being hi-jacked by men in white coats”. But who just who are these ‘men in white coats’?

Thornbury is propagating the “mad scientist” myth common to much pseudo-science writing. Rather than a person we have a uniformed symbol of something sinister. Shadowy, sinister  ‘experts’ are putting mind control drugs in vaccines. Fluoride will give you cancer (if you believe this kind of thing, this is probably the wrong blog for you.) but Thornbury doesn’t ever explain why EFL researchers would necessarily be male, nor why applied linguists would need white coats.  

Historically and unfortunately there has always been an odd artificial divide between the TEFL world and the applied linguistics world. There is a notion that researchers are off writing books and know nothing about the hard-realities of classroom life, the ‘chalk-face’, of ELT when they come out with their high-faulting theories on language acquisition. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

the vast majority of lecturers and researchers started life as teachers and most continue to teach. My dissertation tutor Julie Norton worked in France teaching business English and Japan. another of my tutors, Glenn Fulcher, taught in Greece for years. Sure these people went on to publish and become lecturers but PHDs don’t cause amnesia, -do they?
who are the white coat brigade?

but there is, it seems, not only antipathy towards researchers but also at times an  antipathy towards research. A large number of teachers not only seem to distrust research, but consider personal experience to be far superior. Now, in the absence of evidence then experience is perhaps our only guide, but is it right to spurn research in favour of experience?

Evidence comes in varying degrees of reliability and so it needs to be looked at carefully. a study of 5 students over 1 week is going to yield less useful results than a study of 400 students over years. However if we think “the only thing that matters is experience” then we find ourselves with a number of problems.
If you accept this argument then you basically give up the right to discuss anything. Or rather, discussing anything becomes pointless because the teacher with the most experience will de facto be the ‘rightest’, regardless of his/her opinion. If another person’s equally long experience differs to yours then who is right? . This isn’t education, or critical thinking, it’s just demanding acquiescence.

The “I have more experience than you” card, is basically a variant of the argument from authority. As such, all teachers would have to demur to older, more experienced teachers, regardless of how crap they might be. It is not an unfair position, in my opinion, that if someone has been teaching crap lessons for 30 years, this should count against, rather than in favour of them. Of course, we wouldn’t know the lessons were crap because the experienced teacher would say that “in their experience” the lessons were great, and that would be the end of that.
Experience absolutely should not be discounted and it is often a vital tool in checking the validity of an idea. For example, I learnt a foreign language pretty fluently, as an adult, without ever knowing what kind of learning style I had, and this experience made me sceptical of the claims being made about learning styles (though it doesn’t mean I was right, mind!) But this idea that experience is a reliable measure of something is a deeply flawed concept that can easily be shown to be wrong. At this moment in time we know there are teachers, good teachers, all over the world teaching using different and contradictory methods who are convinced, by what they see every day, that their chosen method really is working. Their ‘experience’ is telling them that their method is effective. Often though, these approaches contradict each other, textbook -no textbook, grammar -no grammar, correction, -no correction, simply put they can’t all be right. 

At this point we may be tempted to turn to relativistic platitudes. We often hear that “it all depends on context” and to an extent that’s true. Things we do in a kid’s classroom will differ to an EAP setting. But this also opens us up to an uncritical free-for-all and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of our students are humans, using the same biological material (their ears, their eyes, their brains) to try to learn. Some things will work everywhere and others will work nowhere. Research can show us this and call me an old cynic but when I get sick and am admitted to hospital, I’ll take ‘tried and tested’ medicine from men (or women) in white coats, than something the local witch doctor knows, from his long-experience, is super effective.

Tim Harford, writing about Ben Goldacre’s recent push for evidence-based teaching, notes:

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was never an excuse for not collecting evidence. And “trust me, I’m a teacher” is not an excuse today. But being a teacher is a superb vantage point for building an evidence-based education system. It is an opportunity that teachers need to seize

I would hate to think the antipathy towards research and the caricaturing of researchers is an attempt to retain authoritative power. Evidence, like democracy, might not be a panacea but it’s better than the other options.

The council of woo

The Council’ likes to promote itself as a rigorous and serious organisation, doing very serious testing and accreditation, but it can be quite partial to the odd bit of ‘woo’.  For example in order to get a CELTA trainees have to be well versed in “learning styles”. This predilection for a bit of magical thinking is most evident on its web page. 

Their article on NLP is littered with embarrassing factoids about my favourite TEFL pseudo-science. The article starts by telling us that NLP has “its roots in psychology and neurology” which is slightly misleading as its creators were studying maths and linguistics at the time. It has nothing to do with neurology and has been soundly rejected by psychology which classes it as a pseudo-science. Not to fear though, ever the great shape-shifter NLP has found a good home in management and education –two rich breeding grounds for ‘woo’.

Writer Steve Darn goes on to tell us that NLP is “about the way the brain works” (which it most certainly isn’t) and that it can help to train the brain (which it can’t because it doesn’t work). Next he tells us it “is related to ‘left / right brain’ functions” (also known as the “left brain right brain myth) and that it shares something with….yes you guessed it “learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”! BINGO!

Hang on a sec though; let’s look at that last sentence again. “Learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”…one of these three is not the same; one of these three is different. Ah yes, research. Because research is where you have a theory and then you test it, which is the opposite of what learning styles and multiple intelligences do. They tend to subscribe to the “have a theory and then sell loads of books” method.

Darn then notes “NLP and related subjects have their sceptics, particularly in terms of general classroom applicability and how NLP is commercially marketed as a method of self-improvement.” and as a creepy method of mind control?
“NLP has been labelled a ‘quasi science’ and criticised on the grounds of lack of empirical studies” That’s the spirit Steve, -don’t spoil it now…

“but there are sound reasons why NLP is compatible with current classroom practice”

This is what I like to call the ‘nod to scepticism’. You list as load of criticism and details as to why something has been rejected by science and then with a wave of your hand you dismiss all those problems. Fantastic! Perhaps we can try this when we teach?

“Well this essay has numerous grammar problems, it’s half plagiarised, it’s not related to the topic and is 100 words too short. –but don’t worry about that stuff, this essay is compatible with an A grade.”


I could go on and on about NLP but to be honest I can’t be bothered. The true believers will just retire to their familiar “well I know it works, I saw it with my eyes.” If you’re at all curious, don’t believe me, I advise you to go and check the literature. See if you can find any credible sources recommending NLP be taken seriously for anything.

If you can then you’ve done more than I managed in months of research. In short NLP either works and our knowledge of how the human brain works and how human languages evolved is wrong, or (and the safe money is here) teachers are signing up for expensive courses and wasting students’ (valuable) time with something which has the same credibility as Ouija boards and tarot cards.

Good for who?

When I first started teaching I used to use an activity from “pronunciation games”. You might have used it yourself  The handout has a series of forked paths, each one ending with the name of a capital city. You choose a difficult pronunciation for your learners  in my case R/L for Japanese students, and assign one for sound for “turn left” and the other for “turn right”. You then write a series of minimal pairs on the board and have one student read them trying to direct their partner to a pre-decided capital city. The mispronunciations would usually result in students going to the wrong city and (supposedly) highlight the perils of mispronunciation. I distinctly remember saying something like “you might say you like eating ‘lice’ which is really disgusting!”

I feel quite embarrassed when I think about this for two reasons. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that anyone hearing a Japanese students say “I like eating lice” would have no problem  understanding what they were going for, but more importantly, because what I failed to notice at the time was that this activity had the effect of making precisely none of my students any better at pronouncing /r/ sounds. Despite no improvement, students enjoyed the activity and I thought it was great. This got me thinking recently; are the things we do in the classroom for the sake of the students, or for the sake the teacher?

Take the “reading skill trilogy” I’ve criticised before. Prediction, skimming and scanning and guessing from context, as I’ve noted, arguably have some very serious problems. Yet they are good for filling up reading lessons and the “aims” columns of observed lesson plans. These ‘skills’ may have limited use for students but are very useful for teachers. A teacher planning a reading course now has something to teach. We can do “prediction” on Monday, “skimming” on Tuesday, “guessing on Wednesday” and so on.

Another example of this phenomena I think is some of the language we use. For my external DELTA lesson I wrote about teaching cause and effect. In order to teach this lesson I had to find out which language items would be the most useful so I created a corpus of about 5 million words from various academic texts. I then checked off the usually course book lists of “cause and effect language” and what I found was quite surprising.

Textbooks and websites often have long lists of cause and effect language, such as:

lead to
due to
owing to
as a result of
stem from
can give rise to
as a consequence of

Interestingly the corpus data showed that while some of these phrases were used frequently, others were barely used at all. Now corpus examination like this is not without problems. However there were some very telling findings. Whereas the word ‘effect’ appeared 691 and ‘leads to’ 368, in 5 million words, ‘owing to’ was only used three times. Other words like ’cause’ were common appearing 189 times but ‘stem from’ didn’t appear once. For teachers and textbooks writers there seems to be a philosophy of “more is more”. The more terms we present to students, the more we may feel we are teaching them, (giving them value for money) when in actual fact, focusing on more commonly used phrase and making sure students have a strong grasp on those, could arguably be  better strategy. After all, isn’t presenting two phrases, seemingly as equals when one is hundreds of times more common, a tad misleading?

The same argument could be made about cohesion phrases like ‘in addition’ and ‘moreover’. In fact the argument has been made, convincingly by Crewe (1990). Throwing a big list of phrases at students might seem like a good idea, but as with cause and effect language ‘less’ is probably more. There are two reasons for this:

firstly, students are often lead to believe that these phrases are synonymous:

Words meaning ‘and’
and, too, as well (as), either, also, in addition (to), besides, furthermore, moreover,
both… and…, not only… but also…

(Eastwood 2002:324)

Call me picky but ‘moreover’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. Moreover means that the second point I’m making may be even more important that the first. Would ‘and’ convey the same meaning here?

She had noticed that there was a man sitting in the second row of the stalls to her right who was observing her, rather than watching the play. Moreover, he seemed to be smiling at her as if he recognised her (BBC)

Presenting these phrases as being ‘equal’ will (and does) lead to confusion and misuse. Here is an example (content altered) from a student essay:

Also, for example, if a Chinese man is dieting, then he has a real need to eat healthy food for a period. Moreover, it can be suggested that consumers can feel happiness when they are in process of consumption (student essay)

the use of ‘moreover’ here is plainly wrong and that there are almost four of these cohesion phrases in two sentences is worrying. The linking phrases are sprinkled on like hundreds and thousands (US sprinkles). Any one who has worked in EAP will recognise this kind of writing.

And Secondly, this approach may also lead students to being overburdened with language which they probably don’t need.  Corpus research (Hinkel 2004:323) indicates that the commonest linkers in formal academic writing are:

1. however
2. thus 
3. therefore 
4. then 
5. so

It is surely better that they can use five commonly appearing phrases well, than 10 or 15 phrases badly. It is also surely better that they are more familiar with more common phrases. It may be nice for a teacher to present students with a huge list of exotic linkers, like some kind of extravagant badge of erudition but how useful is this for students. In the case of language learning Less may well be more.

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?


I used to hear people say “don’t believe everything you read in the papers”. Now I think a better phrase might be “believe nothing at all, you read in the papers”. From completely fictional accounts of events which didn’t happen to wholly dangerous medical advice.  

The list is endless and I won’t bore you, but I do want to share a story that tickled me. This is the story of Alun Morgan who woke up from a coma suddenly able to speak a foreign language. I like this story because it’s so absolutely ridiculous I can’t get angry, I just found it almost charming. At first glance it’s an incredible story:

Alun Morgan, 81, was evacuated to Wales in World War II as a child and had never learned the language.But when he regained consciousness after the serious stroke, he was FLUENT in it.(the sun)

Wow! The guy became fluent just by having a stroke?! amazing! 

An English man woke from a stroke to discover that the only language he could speak was Welsh. Alun Morgan, 81, was forced to re-learn his native tongue, despite the fact that he had never been able to speak fluent Welsh. (Daily Mail)

OMG!  That’s incredible but didn’t you say he used to live in Wales as a child?

During his time there he was surrounded by Welsh speakers but never learned the language himself (Telegraph)

Astounding, so what you’re saying is he basically knew no Welsh,but just started speaking it! Tell me more!

An 81-year-old Englishman woke after a serious stroke to discover he could speak Welsh – despite spending only a few months there as an evacuee during the Second World War. Morgan grew up speaking English, but after his stroke, lost the ability to communicate in any language but Welsh, even though he was last there 70 years ago. (independant)

Ah so he only there for a few months and he never learnt the language but he became fluent…well in that case this really is incredible news. Unless there are some other details that you’re perhaps not telling us?

Apart from the single, short spell, the retiree has spent his life in England,

ok Go on…

although his grandmother – with whom he lived during the war – was a Welsh speaker, as is his wife.

Oh you just thought you’d drop that in there did you? So his wife is a a Welsh speaker as was his grandmother. hmmm well, still he only lived there for a few months right? So not really enough time to become fluent.

He lived in Aberaeron, in mid Wales, for four years from the age of nine (BBC)

 Huh!? So now a few months is a few years!??! And while he was a child, -y’know that time in our lives when language learning tends to be a bit less troublesome?!

Both Mr Morgan’s parents also spoke Welsh (Mail)

Srsly? are you kidding me?

 “We were London Welsh and I learned a bit of Welsh when I was in London. Then, when I was evacuated to Wales during the war, we spoke it virtually all the time because my aunt didn’t speak much English, so I had to pick it up very quickly.”(BBC)

So what you’re saying is, he was basically a Welsh speaker from a Welsh family who went to live in Wales for about four years  as a kid and became fluent and who lives with a Welsh speaking woman. For some reasons newspapers think it is somehow incredible that this person might be able to speak Welsh.  basically these stories should have been titled “Fluent Welsh speaker, from Welsh family who used to lived in Wales and is married to a Welsh woman, finds he can speak fluent Welsh.” Yeah, sure, it’s interesting that the guy seemingly couldn’t use English for a few days but he had a stroke and the brain is a complex organ as far as I can tell nothing miraculous happened here. The excellent Steve Novella of Skeptics Guide to the Universe who is a neurologist notes of a similar story of a young Croatian girl becoming magically fluent in German:

Now the interesting part is that after she woke up from the coma she could speak German a lot more fluently than before and not a word in Croatian. My guess is that Sepsis caused a brain damage in left temporal lobe. Probably mostly in Broca’s Area, thus disabling her in speaking Croatian but not damaging her knowledge of German language. At that point her brain probably switched to best alternative and her passive knowledge of German sprang to life. Without possibility to fall back to Croatian vocabulary there is no dilemma in which words to choose and how to use them so her German must have sounded a lot better to doctors and her parents. (neurologica blog)

This story like so many others is reproduced almost word for word on many thousands of websites. Who cares about the truth right? It makes a good story, and that’s all that matters.