Research in the Classroom

From time to time, I read posts where the writer/teacher assures me that he has observed certain phenomena and no amount of SLA research will dissuade him from the conclusions he has reached.

Just now a teacher took me to task for being patronizing when I suggested he take his observations and translate them into research. He claims that students do learn vocabulary from memorization of lists. I may be slightly distorting what he said (it was that students learn through the study of vocabulary as well as other formats and that they do not do well on tests through contextualized formats), but the claim is very common among fl teachers.

There are many paths to approach this by.

here’s one: how do we know the student has learned the vocabulary? If it’s by testing them, how do we know the test is valid? Does the teacher need a formal test to know whether or not his students know the vocabulary?

Another: how was the testing in-context done? While I am somewhat familiar with this particular teacher through his posts to Lists, other teachers may not understand what “in-context? means; they may think that just giving the word in any sentence is “in-context? or that putting it in an isolated sentence from the textbook is “in-context’… I just don’t know.

We had an interesting thread on flteach (a list-serv for fl teachers) recently where one of the top SLA theorists entered the List and responded to questions. He finally retreated, as I knew he would, in the face of teachers who just want to know how to get their kids to score 5s on the AP or to control an unruly class or to just make their lives easier and their classrooms “fun’.

Now for MY experience: most teachers are not academics and do not know how researchis done. I am no expert, by any means. But I do respect academic research along with respecting its limitations. I see teachers swinging from “give me the total answer to all my problems” to “you academics are full of it”, based on whether they get what they’re looking for.

I attribute this to the godawful working conditions most teachers find themselves in. They are just too impatient to put up with the decades long pace of research results. Very understandable.

BUT, if you tell us you know how languages are learned, why not share it? That does not mean telling what to do; it means demonstrating your results and the methods that get those results. How many of us have tired of tprs? claims of droves of happy students prattling along in L2 and scoring 5s on AP exams? Yet the same people who criticize tprs (which, I think, is the winning wave of the future although I am not a practicioner) for not “backing up” its claims demand respect for their “years of experience”.

Experience is important but who would deny that many teachers plod along year after year repeating the same errors and using the same defense mechanisms to explain their mistakes away (the kids aren’t like they used to be/no one applies himself anymore/ they lack ambition/ they don’t come to us prepared/ the parents spoil them/ the admin doesn’t back me up/ the left-wingers and hippies have destroyed the old discipline and spirit/ the textbooks are no good/ the kids just want to play games, etc.).

We cannot rely on these people. We must have objective evidence that techniques like memorization of decontextualized vocabulary items works. What does “works” mean? It means that students “acquire” the words. What does “acquire” mean? It means that the learner can access the word without conscious thought and can do so as long as he is actively engaged in using the language for communication (how much loss of genuinely “acquired” L2 occurs due to lack of use is open to question…. it’s possible to lose one’s native language but people instructed via CI and contextualized language retain L2 for a considerable time — that’s anecdotal).

Why is it important to be able to access vocab (and grammar) without conscious thought? Because you are thinking about what you are communicating, not about where the suffix goes to indicate plurality for that particular noun.

If you comment on this, I can respond and refine it. This is just a reaction to one post.

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