The top 10 foreign language learning research areas MFL teachers are most interested in

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When I started writing my blog I did not expect I would get any readers at all. I started it much in the same spirit as one starts writing a journal; as a way to reflect on my practice and on my beliefs about language learning. When, however, people from all over the world started to contact me requesting to know more about specific areas of foreign language acquisition and pedagogy and “Six useless things foreign language teachers do” got more than 3,000 readers in one night, it finally hit me: there are keen and reflective classroom practitioners out there who do want to know more about L2 acquisition theory, neuroscience and L2 research than what they were taught on their teacher training courses or during a few hours of CPD by educational consultants.

In actual fact, the reasons why I decided to embark on a Master’s course in Applied Linguistics after two years of UK comprehensive-school teaching refer mainly to my deep dissatisfaction with the way I was taught how to teach on my PGCE course. My PGCE tutors were great, do not get me wrong. However, on my teacher training I was basically quickly shown a few tricks of the trade – mostly through videos or demo lessons with the ‘perfect’ classes – equipped with a few ‘lesson templates’ and sent off to my teaching practice schools. No need to tell you what happened there; you have all been through that nerve-racking baptism of fire; you have all come across the really motivated and inspirational teachers who tried their best to support you and the demotivated and disgruntled ones who tried to discourage you. The outcome: I learnt more tricks of the trade, but not a shred of understanding of how the human brain acquires languages; not a hint of what research says sound MFL pedagogy looks like; I left my last teaching practice placement with glimpses, intuitions of what may work and what may not, totally unsupported by a theory of learning or research evidence.

Things did not improve much in my first school as an NQT. More trial and error; more tricks of the trade; more useless training sessions; still not a sound pedagogic framework, a theory that I could refer to, rooted in neuroscience. I had to use quite a lot of my savings to finally get that framework and that research-based knowledge from some of the greatest names in EFL pedagogy and research at the Reading Centre for Applied Language Studies (CALS). Costly, but worth every penny!

Yet many of the colleagues I have worked with in 25 years of MFL teaching firmly believed that a good MFL teacher does not need to know about theory or research. I remember how one of them used to refer to the applied linguistics handbooks that I used to read during my frees as ‘silly books’. An understandable attitude considering how inaccessible many researchers have made their often very useful findings to classroom teachers with their convoluted jargon and obscure statistics.

A fairly recent survey carried out by my former PhD supervisor, Professor Macaro of Oxford University, however, found that although only 3% of the teachers interviewed found research accessible, 80% of them were actually interested in what research has to say about language acquisition and pedagogy. The following are the top ten areas of research Dr Macaro’s informants identified as most useful. Please note that the sample was not huge – only about 100 – and that the people who filled in the questionnaire were Heads of Department, i.e. very experienced teachers. The ranking is based on the means of the score each topic area received (1 being very useful and 4 being not at all useful):

  • Vocabulary acquisition74 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • How the grammar rules of the language are best learnt 73 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • Motivation68 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • How learners make progress with language learning58 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • Differences amongst learners (e.g. age; gender)53 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • Speaking51 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • How the brain stores and retrieves language58 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • KS4 (lower intermediate) research37 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • Writing 39 % of the teachers found this topic very useful
  • KS3 (beginner) research 29 % of the teachers found this topic very useful

What is interesting is the absence from the above list of two topics that I have written about and seem to have been very popular amongst my readers, i.e. listening and reading research. In fact, of Dr Macaro’s informants only 25 % were interested in listening and 27 % in reading.

What areas of research are you most interested in? I would love to have your input!

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