Thursday, May 30, 2024
HomeFeatures and CommentExploring the evidence

Exploring the evidence

Two teachers offer their views on common teaching practices

Below, two of the authors of An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom (Pavilion ELT at Pavilion Publishing) explore the evidence, and sometimes lack of evidence, supporting common teaching strategies and procedures.

The importance of prior knowledge

BY Carol Lethaby

Educational research shows us how essential prior knowledge is to learning new things. The average correlation between background knowledge and achievement is .66, according to Marzano (2004:2), meaning that students who have a lot of background knowledge on a topic will learn new information on that topic better and more easily than students who do not have good previous knowledge of the topic.

The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in neuroscience allows us to notice activation in a particular part of the brain when learners are connecting old and new information, leading researchers to believe that there is actually an area of the brain (the medial prefrontal cortex) where background knowledge and new learning connect. This represents enormous potential for education.

As one of the researchers who has looked at this says: “…once we understand more about how our brain uses prior knowledge (the stuff we already know) to learn new information, we could tap into our prior knowledge better and more selectively before we learn new information” (Van Kesteren, 2012). There is also evidence from cognitive load theory that shows the importance of background knowledge in reducing cognitive load when students are learning new things and consequently it can make tasks more achievable (Sweller et al, 2019).

Much of the evidence for the importance of previous knowledge in learning new things is not particularly focused on language learning, but a study by Chen and Graves (1995) did look specifically at English language learners. Two hundred and forty college students in Taiwan were presented with a text either with or without pre-reading tasks. When their reading comprehension was tested, it was found that those who had received pre-reading background information outperformed those who had no pre-reading help.

The above study considers background knowledge of the world, but when we’re looking at L2 learners, they also bring with them lots of relevant previous language knowledge: their L1 knowledge, as well as knowledge of any additional languages (including English), and this, too, will affect success in future English language learning.

Pellicer-Sanchez et al (2020) found that pre-teaching vocabulary before introducing a reading text helped with both reading and vocabulary learning. By tracking eye movements, they found that learners who had been pre-taught vocabulary spent less time on the pre-taught words when re-reading them in a text, while learners who had not been pre-taught continued to spend longer on the new words when they re-read them. Apart from reading faster, readers who had received pre-teaching also learned the new words better. Ibraham et al point out that studies show that “higher vocabulary knowledge leads to higher text comprehension” (2016:116).

So, what does this mean for teacher education and classroom practice? It suggests that we need to focus more on pre-reading and pre-listening tasks than perhaps we have traditionally done, and to think carefully about how we can use them to best help learners. Field (2008) has suggested that, for lower-level learners, more time should be spent activating and building up language knowledge in the pre-listening stages, while at more advanced levels more time can be spent on background content knowledge. Research in the areas of task design and cognitive load can also give valuable information about how to design more effective pre-reading and pre-listening tasks. Teachers in training can focus on how to use visuals to really support comprehension of text, as well as how to cut out extra visuals and tasks that distract from learning, and which don’t actually help learners process the text. We know the power of prior knowledge: let’s learn how to use it.


Chen, H C & Graves, M F (1995). ‘Effects of previewing and providing background knowledge on Taiwanese college students’ comprehension of American short stories’. TESOL Quarterly 29(4) 663–686.

Field, J (2009). ‘Input and context’. Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge Language Teaching Library, 125–139. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ibrahim, E H E, Sarudin, I, & Muhamad, A J (2016). ‘The Relationship between Vocabulary Size and Reading Comprehension of ESL Learners’. English Language Teaching 9(2) 116–123.

Marzano, R J (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria: ASCD.

Pellicer-Sanchez, A, Conklin, K & Vilkait ̇e- Lozdien ̇e, L (2020). ‘The effect of pre- reading instruction on vocabulary learning: An investigation of L1 and L2 readers’ eye movements’. Language Learning.

Sweller, J, van Merrienboer, J J & Paas, F (2019). ‘Cognitive architecture and instructional design: 20 years later’. Educational Psychology Review 31 261–292.

Van Kesteren, M (2014). ‘Building on prior knowledge: How does the student brain learn?’ blog/2014/5/12/building-on-prior-knowledge- how-does-the-student-brain-learn

Carol Lethaby has been involved in English language teaching since 1986, working with teachers since 1994. She has lived and worked in the UK, Austria, France, Greece and, for 14 years, Mexico. She is now based in San Francisco, California, and is a part-time assistant professor on the New School online MA in TESOL, as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension. She has worked on several textbook series for English learners. More information can be found at

Retrieval practice

By Russell Mayne

One of the most robust findings in educational research is that retrieval practice is important for learning. That is, asking students to try to recall items previously studied will help them to retain the information (Folse 2004:156).

Not only is this finding robust, it’s also incredibly old. In 1885, Ebbinghaus reported the existence of what he termed a ‘forgetting curve’, that showed how long it would take, without active recall, before new items are forgotten. While his research was far from perfect (he did it on himself, after all), he clearly had identified something real about the human mind.

In 1967, famed language teacher Paul Pimsleur noted that the “keystone upon which to build foreign language materials” was that “each time a memory is ‘boosted’ it retains its strength longer than the time before”. He termed the effect “graduated interval recall”.

Other, more recent researchers have also looked at this practice and found strong evidence for its efficacy. In one study (Kan, Gollan and Pashler, 2013) students were taught words from a language they did not know. They were then divided into groups. One group was shown the vocabulary three times and the other group was instead asked to try to recall the vocabulary themselves on three occasions. The recall group (self-tested) performed far better than those who were just retaught. Similarly, Karpike & Roediger (2008: 966) found that “repeated retrieval practice enhanced long-term retention, whereas repeated studying produced essentially no benefit”.

Retrieval practice is also often seen in language learning programmes like Duolingo. It is particularly suited to computer-based language learning, because programmes, unlike teachers, are able to accurately keep track of which words a student remembers and which ones they struggle with.

“It is rare to see lessons start with a review of any kind, let alone a 
review of vocabulary items in the form of retrieval practice”

However, despite the solid research backing, the impressive pedigree and the high-tech credentials, my experience of observations of teachers suggest it is also a chronically unused tool. It is rare to see lessons start with a review of any kind, let alone a review of vocabulary items in the form of retrieval practice. It does not, in my experience, form any significant part of teacher training courses such as CELTA and DELTA. In fact, the only place it does seem to make an appearance is when students make flash cards and test themselves at home.

This all seems to indicate that teachers should make time in courses for students to review previously studied vocabulary. Boers (2021) makes several suggestions for how this can be done. Although possibly seen as a bit stale, gap fills offer a great opportunity for students to try to recall items in context (though notably, without the missing words given).

Conversely, a multiple-choice item would not be a great way to stimulate recall since students only have to recognise the correct item. This is because, as Dunlosky et al (2013) note, recall is more effective in retrieval practice than activities that require mere recognition.

Boers also notes that having students write sentences with the items in would be even more effective than a gap fill, as it requires more cognitive effort; though notable, a productive task is likely to take up far more class time than the simple recall.

Retrieval is a crucial yet undervalued tool in a language teacher’s arsenal. Without retrieval practice the likelihood that items will be retained is far lower and much class learning will be forgotten. So, if you haven’t yet, why not try incorporating retrieval practice into your classes?


Boers, F, 2021. Evaluating Second Language Vocabulary and Grammar Instruction: A Synthesis of the Research on Teaching Words, Phrases, and Patterns. Routledge.

Dunlosky, J, Rawson, K A, Marsh, E J, Nathan, M J and Willingham, D T, 2013. ‘Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology’. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), pp.4-58.

Folse, K S, 2004. Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Karpicke, J D and Roediger, H L, 2008. ‘The critical importance of retrieval for learning’. Science, 319(5865), pp 966-968.

Kang, S H, Gollan, T H and Pashler, H, 2013. ‘Don’t just repeat after me: Retrieval practice is better than imitation for foreign vocabulary learning’. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(6), pp 1259-1265.

Pimsleur, P, 1967. ‘A memory schedule’. The Modern Language Journal, 51(2), pp 73-75.

Russell Mayne is an assistant professor at the International University of Japan. He is interested in evidence-based teaching, research and meta-research.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY14995841 FROM PIXBAY and Library
Previous article
Next article
Liz Granirer
Liz Granirer
Liz has been a journalist for many years. She is currently editor of EL Gazette and has previously edited the magazines Young Performer, StepForward and Accounting Technician; been deputy editor on Right Start magazine; chief sub editor on Country Homes & Interiors; and sub editor on easyJet Traveller, Lonely Planet and Family Traveller magazines, along with a number of others.
- Advertisment -

Latest Posts