Ron Ragsdale in conversation with Judit Kormos
For us, You are a thought leader partly because, as a Hungarian working at the University of Lancaster, you represent a new kind of ELT influencer – not only a woman, but a non-native speaker and an EU citizen working in Brexit Britain. Have you found this to be an advantage, or a disadvantage, in your career?
Being a non-native speaker in an English-speaking environment is almost always a challenge, and I have often perceived myself to be lacking the competence of native speakers. In the UK, however, I soon realised that it was only my perception – in fact, I am just as legitimate a participant in any conversation as anybody else.
I have been helped by the growing recognition that non-native speakers are not deficient, and their multilingual competence is something to be celebrated.
Lancaster University has a large proportion of international staff and students. So, being an international lecturer and researcher in Lancaster gives me different perspectives and helps me better understand the challenges our students face. I also speak several languages, and these multilingual skills have allowed me to co-operate with colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds.
I have recently been working in an EU-funded project designed to foster inclusive language education in German.
Unfortunately, Brexit threatens some of these collaborative ties, and I am deeply concerned how we will be able to continue our work in the area of dyslexia and language teaching.
And what was the biggest culture shock you experienced?
One of the biggest culture shocks was that people use so many acronyms. Half the time I had no clue what was being discussed. But now I am probably also guilty of using too many myself!
However, I have enjoyed a lot of things from the moment I arrived. The most notable was the abundance of resources available in terms of teaching and research. In Hungary, I had to buy copier paper and toner myself, and had very limited access to journals, books and funding.
I also enjoyed that finally I could put students at the centre of my teaching, and I did not have to make compromises to meet my students’ learning needs.
You are particularly known for your work on dyslexia in second language learning – a subject for which Lancaster, and not just the university, seems to have become a world centre. How did you first become interested?
I became interested in specific learning difficulties about 20 years ago when one of my Masters students asked me if I knew anything about dyslexia. He assumed that because I taught psycholinguistics, I would be an expert on the topic and that I could supervise his dissertation. I had to frankly admit that other than knowing what the word meant, I had very little knowledge about dyslexia. So, we learned together!
He was followed by another very enthusiastic MA student, Ágnes Sarkadi, who was dyslexic herself and who was already a strong advocate of rights for dyslexic students in Hungary. After she finished her dissertation, we won a major grant to start a comprehensive research programme on equal rights in language education, complemented with a clear focus on teacher education. I have been working in this area continuously ever since.
Why has it taken so long for the EFL profession to put it on the agenda?
I think one of the reasons is that very little research has been available on dyslexic language learners prior to 2000, and most of that research was conducted in the USA.
When I proposed our first edited collection on this topic to major international publishers, after some initial enthusiasm, they said dyslexia affects a relatively small proportion of students and there was not a big enough market for such a book.
It was Multilingual Matters, a small family-owned publisher in the UK, which recognised the niche and the social relevance of the topic and in the end published our edited collection, and later our book with Anne Margaret Smith on teaching languages to students with specific learning differences.
The publication of the book, and then a follow-up EU-funded teacher training project, which won an ELTon award, helped to put inclusive language teaching at the forefront of the ELT agenda. Now it has become such a prominent topic that in the past three years almost every major English language teaching organization has dedicated at least one conference to this theme.
“I like solving problems related to language learning and teaching and most of my research questions originate from classroom practice.”
What is the most important thing about learners with Specific Learning that teachers need to know?
It is difficult, but perhaps what I would highlight is that student-centred language teaching that uses multi-sensory teaching methods, guided discovery activities, frequent revision and recycling is very helpful for dyslexic learners.
In fact, inclusive language teaching that recognises the different strengths and weaknesses of each student, applies differentiation techniques, trains students to apply language learning strategies and pays attention to the varying needs of students, benefits all students, not just those who have specific learning difficulties.
In collaboration with Bimali Indrarathne, you have done three recent studies on explicit and implicit learning. How did you become interested in this area?
My interest in explicit instruction is also linked to the theme of dyslexia and language learning. It is generally recommended that dyslexic students should be given explicit explanations of different language structures because they find implicit learning challenging.
Most of my language teaching experience, which I gained in the early years of my career, also confirmed that implicit learning in foreign language classroom contexts for students older than 10-12 years old is generally slow and not always effective.
I wondered, to what extent can we speed up learning by directing students’ attention to novel language features and by giving explanations of these features, and how students with different cognitive characteristics benefit from these?
Learning from language input, be it written, spoken or multimodal, is very demanding for students because they need to understand the meaning of what they hear or read, and to pay attention to how that meaning is expressed at the same time. If we guide students’ attention to specific aspects of the input, they will notice these more effectively and they will be able to learn these more quickly.
In the joint research with Bimali Indrarathne, we found that what mattered most was this kind of directed attention focus, rather than explicit metalinguistic explanations of the rules or regularity of language. Without such explicit attentional guidance, students’ eye-tracking patterns did not show any noticing and the learning gains were also minimal, even in conditions when the target feature was visually enhanced – when it was printed in bold.
Paul Meara once wrote in the Gazette that aural working memory was the biggest predictor of language learning aptitude and you have found that working memory plays a key role in how learners pay attention to input. How do you think working memory impacts language learning?
Working memory is involved in any kind of learning, but it is a limited capacity system; there are constraints on how many things we can pay attention to at the same time and how many new items of information we can keep in short-term memory at once.
There is some variation among people as regards their working memory capacity, which means that some people with higher working memory capacity might learn another language more easily than others.
Dyslexic students tend to have smaller working memory capacity, and the research with Bimali Indrarathne showed that differential working memory ability very strongly predicted how much attention students paid to language input and how much they learned under laboratory conditions.
However, language learning in the classroom is much more complex, and other factors such as motivation, anxiety and other cognitive abilities which are independent of working memory, also pay a strong role. In simple words, someone with high motivation and low anxiety might overcome working memory limitations.
There are also tasks where working memory limitations might become less important. In fact, well-designed instructional tasks should
“Inclusive language teaching …. Benefits all students, not just those who have specific learning difficulties.”
not be very taxing for working memory resources and should allow everyone to succeed.
In our recent research conducted with young learners we found that assessment tasks that take into account the cognitive characteristics of children might allow all young test-takers, regardless of their working memory abilities, to demonstrate their knowledge.
The question that interests me most is which features of different types of second language tasks, particularly in reading and writing, minimise working memory differences among students.
You have always struck us as a bit as the Paul Erdős of EFL – he was a Hungarian mathematician who loved to solve problems rather than come up with one overarching theory. Like Erdős, you are a Hungarian applied linguist who likes to solve problems.
This comparison is very flattering. Indeed, I like solving problems related to language learning and teaching, and most of my research questions originate from classroom practice. I believe that second language learning is far too complex to be explained by one overarching theory. This is not to negate the importance of theories in our field, which have been very influential and helpful in many respects.
So, what problem would you most like to solve?
The question of how we can promote inclusive language education remains my main field of interest. I would like to do more work on providing an empirical basis for recommended language teaching techniques for dyslexic students. I would also like to research how we can make language tests more accessible to students with specific learning difficulties.
As we work intensively with language teachers, I would also like to find out what methods in teacher education are most effective in enhancing inclusive language teaching practices in different classroom contexts.
Judit Kormos is a Hungarian-born British linguist. She is a professor and the Director of Studies for the MA TESOL Distance programme at the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University.
- Engage digital English and German digital task bank for dyslexic students: http://engage.unimiskolc.hu/index.php/engage-2/
FutureLearn MOOC on Dyslexia and Language Learning: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/dyslexia