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Research round-up

Two topics animate newsroom discussions at the Gazette: one is politics, the other is language learning. While it’s hard to imagine us running out of issues to discuss in politics, keeping our language learning debates alive and relevant requires some research. That is one of the reasons why we, in our editor’s words, read an ‘inordinate amount’ of research papers – mostly in the field of applied linguistics and education – and survey academics. The other more serious reason is that current research is the lifeblood of classroom practice. With our Research News in Brief we wish to inspire teachers and foreign language aficionados alike – and the section will grow as we dedicate more space to evidence-based teaching.

Secrets of ELL success
Claudia Civinini writes

There are ever-increasing numbers of English language learners (ELLs) in US schools, constituting almost 10 per cent of all US public school students in 2013–14, according to the National Centre for Education Statistics. New policies are being created to supporting bilingualism and biliteracy. However, these students generally still significantly underperform compared to their native-speaker peers.

Some schools do manage to support the development of English language proficiency along with high academic achievement. A research group from Stanford University set out to discover where best practice lies, and to show how this could be implemented nationwide. 

In their paper ‘Schools to learn from: how six high schools graduate English language learners college and career ready’ the group presents six case studies. These six public high schools have demonstrated ‘extraordinary academic outcomes for ELLs’. All adhere to what is known as the Castañeda standard: English proficiency programmes are based on sound educational theory, sufficiently resourced and regularly evaluated. More fundamentally, they are designed around ELL needs, and employ practices and structures tailored to benefit all students, not just ELLs.

What do these schools do so well? The researchers worked in teams to examine each school’s system and practices – observing classes, interviewing teachers, students and parents, and reviewing key documents. They boiled down their findings to a recipe for success divided between ‘school values’ and ‘school design’.

The six shared values which guide management decisions are:

1. An ambitious mission: each school works to ensure that every student can and will succeed. ‘Instruction is tremendously rigorous, and there is an extremely high level of support provided to help these students meet this level of rigor.’

2. The mission guides all decisions: from scheduling of classes to recruitment.

3. A mind set of continuous improvement: management and planning are data-driven, no assumptions are made about the student body and its needs. Students share this attitude, and are encouraged to reflect on their achievements.

4. Shared responsibility: each and every stakeholder takes responsibility for the students’ success. There is a high level of community involvement.

5. Attention to students’ needs and capabilities: what they are capable of doing, not just what they are able to do. Everything starts with the students – the school and its practices are designed around them.

6. A strong sense of pride in cultural diversity: languages are seen as an asset, and the school invests time and resources to understand the lived experiences of students.

As well as the shared values which shape student experience, the schools all employed seven elements for school design which change the structure of the school to suit learners’ needs.

1. Passionate, strategic and mission-driven leadership: leadership teams are ‘tireless to move forward’, constantly reflect on their work and also all teach classes.

2. Strategic staffing: staff are culturally matched to the students and the school. Staff often speak the students’ languages, have significant international experience and value continuous professional development. Staff collaboration is ‘frequent and well supported’.

3. Ongoing, intentional assessment: structured to allow teachers to effectively plan to extend their students’ capabilities and to create opportunities for success. Families are always involved.

4. Intensive social and emotional support: mentoring is ‘abundant’, families are contacted often and in their home language, the school ensures families and students are well connected to support services (health, housing, food security, etc.) in their community.

5. A Clil-based approach: the language framework is integrated with academic content, includes overt language learning and practising analytical skills. There is consistent co-planning between ESL instructors and subject teachers, while classroom language use is carefully planned.

6. Carefully crafted learning structures: for example block schedules, after-school support and small classes. Staff are always on hand to help students.

7. Strategic community partnership: schools work with community organisations to expand the existing practices and afford students more opportunities to succeed.

As the authors commented, quality preparation for college and career doesn’t need to be a privilege bestowed upon the most fortunate – it can be available to all students when ‘school communities are fully engaged and fully committed to enacting a clear, coherent and equitable vision’.

Read the full study at: http://ell.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Schools%20to%20Learn%20From%20.pdf


Filtering out the criticism
Claudia Civinini writes

There is no definitive recipe for a perfect professional training programme. However, the authors of this study suggest that, by understanding how teachers change as a result of such programmes, more effective practices could be implemented.

In this qualitative case study ten primary school teachers were monitored after having attended a seminar which focused on communicative language teaching, use of L2 in the classroom and self-reflection. The authors used classroom observation and pre- and post-observation interviews.

For any transformation to occur, self-reflection is essential. The authors found that self-reflection can be triggered by two training practices: participant-based training (active learning, activities like role plays, etc.), which fosters teachers’ empathy with their students, and use of L2 as a medium of instruction. Self-reflection triggers changes in teachers’ pedagogical beliefs, which in turn manifest in changes in teachers’ classroom practice. But how long does it last?

The authors observed that perceived student attitudes to teacher change, teacher self-efficacy and teacher motivation had a pivotal effect in the long term. They suggest that to improve the sustainability of teachers’ learning experience, professional learning programmes could include modules on how to manage student motivation (for example, negative attitudes to L2 use in class), foster teachers’ self-efficacy and implement a follow-up routine with professional trainers supporting teachers after the programme.

Sahin, I & Yildrim, A (2015) Transforming professional learning into practice. Oxford University Press – ELT Journal Volume 70/3 July 2016


The skill of subtitling
Josh Devlin writes

A recent study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE showed a link between watching foreign language films and improvements in vocabulary, listening and plot comprehension.

Sixty students from Cambridge University, all of whom spoke a Romance language and had already been studying English, watched a single episode of Downton Abbey in English with either English, Spanish or no subtitles.

Results showed vocabulary improving by nearly 9 per cent with no subtitles and 6 per cent with English subtitles. Plot comprehension scores improved best with Spanish subtitles, a 93 per cent comprehension rate. The students’ listening scores improved by nearly 17 per cent with English subtitles, 7 per cent with no subtitles and 0 per cent with Spanish subtitles.

The study used a small sample size and further research is necessary, but initial findings offer an interesting insight into how foreign language films can help improve L2 vocabulary and listening.

Birulés-Muntané J, Soto-Faraco S (2016) Watching Subtitled Films Can Help Learning Foreign Languages. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0158409. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158409