I’ve just finished reading an interesting post called The role of research in TEFL by Peter Pun and I thought I’d publish my take on it.
Well, I’ve always felt that TEFL research has to be carried out by teachers themselves if it is to be useful since it is the teachers who have a direct access to students/language learners, not the academics in their ivory towers. And the learners (or their knowledge/skills) are ultimately the subjects of such research, right?
I thought how wonderful it would be to become part of an online community of English teachers-researchers, who would regularly discuss questions/problems and back up their assertions with evidence from their own research.
I’m not talking about some longitudinal studies which take years to complete. I’m talking about short-term experiments that could spice up our teaching practice and make it more informed. For example, there has been some research supporting the assertion that memorizing words from alphabetical bilingual lists is not very effective. Yet, I dare say that many of us still use this method of revising vocabulary because, for some reason, we think it works under the given circumstances, i.e. in our educational contexts. So knowing about a research is one thing, the actual practice is another issue. This discrepancy sometimes results in bad conscience, which we usually kill as soon as we see our students’ outstanding test scores. Anyway, what if we tried to prove ourselves that there really are better ways of learning vocabulary (or maybe that there aren’t)? Would it make us do things differently?
Here’s my suggestion for a simple experiment. In your class, make two groups of students (A and B) of approximately the same learning potential. All A-students will be asked to revise a vocabulary set in a traditional way, i.e. from an alphabetical list consisting of English words and their L1 equivalents. All B-students will make word cards using the same list – with the English word on one side of the card and the L1 translation on the other side. Encourage them to add a definition and an example sentence too. Tell them that it’s best if they shuffle the cards from time to time during revision. Test them the following day. Record the results of their tests. If possible, don’t tell them anything about your experiment (human mind is tricky and it could distort the results of your promising experiment).
Next week, do the same but all A-students will make word cards to learn from while B-students will only learn from the list (use a different set of words this time). Test them the next day and record the scores.
To make the results of your experiment more reliable, you can obviously do more rounds.
Now, you may ask what type of test you should design. I’d recommend including at least two parts – an L1>L2 translation and a gap fill – the same for both groups. You probably know where I’m headed and you may even try to predict the results. But see the results first and then draw conclusions. Your conclusions will definitely be valid because they will be about your class and about your teaching context. Another teacher, from a totally different teaching environment, may come up with different inferences but that’s OK. Like you, this teacher will then adjust his/her methods based on the needs of his/her own students.
Also, you can do a little survey too. Ask your students what they think – what method of learning vocabulary felt more useful and why? Learning more about the test subjects, i.e. our language learners, is, in my view, an inevitable part of any TEFL research.
Have fun and let me know if you try this. Any potential problems you see in the design of the experiment? Any ideas for other experiments?