Book Review: An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom

Written by: Mike Turner



Time to read 5 min

An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom | Theory and Practice

by Carol Lethaby, Russell Mayne and Patricia Harries (2001: Pavilion ELT, Shoreham-by-sea)

This book provides an overview of the existing evidence relating to the effectiveness of various common practices in English Language Teaching. As such, it is long overdue given that many ELT practices are informed - and sometimes ill-informed - by instinct, anecdote, habit and historical ‘givens’, this book is a breath of fresh air to anyone wanting to bring some order and sense to the plethora of beliefs and practices that are routinely espoused as best practice in EFL.

There has been, for too long, a disjunct between academic research and ELT classroom practice. Few teachers have time to keep up-to-date with journal articles and peer-reviewed studies that could help inform their practice and there are few secondary sources where authors have tried to collate and summarise the findings in any useful way. It has been clear for some time that ELT is playing catch-up with many other disciplines that have sought to sort the wheat from the chaff by examining some real data.

I have to say that the authors go quite easy on those who question bringing research-based rigour to the debate. Let’s face it, we have heard it all before – the notion that teaching is instinctive, that it is an art rather than a science and that learning is not amenable to any sort of meaningful analysis. This attitude is at worst lazy and arrogant, and at best misguided. Why not put our instincts to the test and discover what we are doing well, and what we are doing ineffectively? In short, it is time to grow up and take a long, hard look at ourselves. And once you get past the random cover image of an eagle soaring high over a forest and into the meat of the book, there is plenty of food for thought. Perhaps I am missing the visual metaphor here – or perhaps the book has made me too mindful of non-germane images.

The book is divided into two parts: the first on theory and the second on practice:

Part One: Theory

The theory section makes the case for adopting an evidence-based approach to EFL teaching, then provides an overview of findings in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, cognition, second language acquisition and educational research. It debunks some commonly held myths by outlining what we know about how the brain works to process and store knowledge. At the end of each chapter, the authors provide a useful summary, references, and a bibliography, directing the interested reader to related books and journal articles.

Some of the key messages are:

  • Explicit teaching can make a difference to learning outcomes (whew!)
  • The brain is complex, interconnected and plastic, changing its structure as it accommodates new knowledge and learning. 
  • Rather than enriching the learning experience, extraneous, repetitious or redundant content can contribute to cognitive overload, which in turn can interfere with effective learning,
  • Working memory has a strictly limited capacity and facts stored in the working memory will quickly be lost, so we need to facilitate their transfer to long-term memory.
  • For the above reason, it is important to link new knowledge to existing background knowledge and schemas that are stored in our long-term memory. For low-level learners, this is likely to involve calling on students’ existing knowledge of the world or of their L1.
  • It is important to provide learners not only with rich and meaningful input but also with plenty of opportunities for output.
  • Learning chunks of language can be useful - in certain contexts. For example, as unanalysed functional phrases to boost the vocabulary and basic functional skills of lower-level learners.
  • The most effective way of memorising is through consistent, distributed and interleaved practice.
  • Practice of retrieval and elaboration of knowledge consolidates learning.

Part two: Practice

Part two examines how we can apply existing data and evidence to our teaching. Specifically, it looks at the teaching of grammar and vocabulary, the role of pronunciation and how we teach receptive and productive skills. There are also chapters on the role of L1 and on whether the evidence points to the importance of teaching 21st-century skills. At the end of each chapter, there are bulleted key takeaways.

There are some unsurprising conclusions to be drawn from the research, such as the fact that encouraging extensive reading is one of the best ways of extending language knowledge and skills. However, there are also some conclusions that challenge several widespread practices - such as providing training in the use of context to guess unknown vocabulary or teaching vocabulary as groups of words or phrases that are closely related semantically.

I have listed below the top ten things that I have taken away from the book – you’ll have to buy it and read it yourself for the full experience!

  1. For effective learning, use direct teaching with active student engagement, rather than discovery learning. Use problem-solving and guided-discovery tasks for practising and recycling learned material.
  2. Keep the cognitive load manageable by focusing clearly on the material to be learned. Keep it simple and cut out redundant extrinsic or irrelevant information. Ensure any accompanying visuals are clear, helpful and germane.
  3. When teaching vocabulary, group words thematically rather than semantically, as semantically related words presented at the same time are easily confused. To help learning, design vocabulary tasks that require mental effort and processing.
  4. When teaching pronunciation, take account of what learners want, but encourage them to concentrate on intelligibility rather than native-speaker competence.
  5. Design pronuncial tasks and remedial work that focus on specific segments and supra-segmental features that are impacting intelligibility.
  6. Use pre-reading tasks focused on the language content to activate and build on student knowledge prior to engagement with a text. This will help students form links with existing knowledge.
  7. Give corrective feedback – either directly or, if indirectly, at least ensure that the learner realises they are being corrected!
  8. Use periodic tests as a learning aid to provide practice of retrieving and actively processing information.
  9. Allow judicious use of learners’ own L1 to enhance the learning of a new language – particularly as a way of allowing lower-level learners to access existing schemas and knowledge.
  10. Raise learner's awareness of the way they learn and what approaches work well for them. At the same time, teach selected, effective metacognitive strategies, such as planning, monitoring and evaluation in order to boost learning.

In Conclusion

This book should be essential reading for all English teachers and EFL teachers in training. It’s a book for those who are serious about developing their teaching skills and who are not always prepared to take at face value everything they are told. It’s a chance for teachers to reflect thoughtfully on their own classroom practise, make informed decisions and hone their teaching skills.

Also, don’t be misled into thinking that this book is all about making wholesale changes to our teaching. Its conclusions are far more balanced and nuanced than this. As I said at the start, it’s about sorting the wheat from the chaff. Let’s find where the evidence points to good practice and where we might want to consider alternative approaches.

My only criticism of the book – and it is a relatively minor one - is that some of the reproductions of course book pages and activities can be rather difficult to read. Hopefully, this is something that can be remedied in future editions.

Aside from this, the book is a noble attempt to bring together and analyse what the evidence tells us about how we can become better practitioners.

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