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  • 1. LANGUAGE TEACHING RESEARCH Language Teaching ResearchLessons about learning: 15(2) 254–267 © The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.Comparing learner co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1362168810388726experiences with ltr.sagepub.comlanguage researchLuke RowlandKanda University of International Studies, JapanAbstractThis is an account of how one class of English language learners compared and contrasted theirlanguage learning experiences with English language teaching (ELT) research findings during a five-week Intensive Academic Preparation course at an Australian university. It takes as its startingpoint the fact that learners, unlike teachers and researchers, are rarely, if ever, encouraged to viewlanguage research as a potentially valuable resource. Using an exploratory practice approach(Allwright, 2003, 2005; Allwright & Hanks, 2009), the class examined and discussed both thestructure and the content of three language teaching journal articles during regular English lessons.The comparisons the students made between their own language learning experiences and theresearch in the articles helped us to recognize three important characteristics of the learners in ourclass: (1) their pride in their personal knowledge of English language learning, (2) their understandingof themselves as individuals within the language learning process, and (3) their obvious concern withhow their wider lives impact upon their learning approaches. Most importantly from a pedagogicalstandpoint, I witnessed my students develop as reflective, critical language experts in their own rightthrough this experience of engaging with both the processes and the products of language research.Keywordsexploratory practice, learners as researchers, learner voices, learner reflections, learner beliefs,learner agency, learner empowermentI IntroductionAt the beginning of my post-graduate study (Rowland, 2008), as I surveyed the literatureon English language teaching and learning, I came across two comments that caught myCorresponding author:Luke Rowland, Kanda University of International Studies, 1-4-1 Wakaba, Mihama-ku, Chiba-shi, 261-0014, JapanEmail: lukerowland@hotmail.com
  • 2. Rowland 255attention. The first declared that learning ‘is accidental, individual and private – theopposite of teaching, which is deliberate, public and most often directed to groups’(Prabhu, 1999, p. 53). Although this description of learning and teaching was immedi-ately interesting to me, I soon wondered what my students would make of it. Would theyfind it as interesting as I did? Would it provoke some discussion amongst them? Did theyconsider learning to be ‘accidental, individual and private’? After considering the pos-sibilities, I realized that the more immediate question was not what my students wouldmake of this comment but instead whether they were ever actually likely to encounter itto be able to form an opinion of it. To explain this situation further, comments, ideas and research findings inside ELTliterature form part of a communal discussion on language teaching and learning thatteachers and researchers traditionally ‘claim as their domain’ (Cotterall, 1999, p. 493; seealso Wharton, 2006). This is not to say that all teachers and researchers necessarily agreewith each other but that they are at least invited to be involved in the discussion and tosupport or challenge ideas as they see fit. In contrast, students – despite their obviouslanguage learning credentials – seldom get the chance to enter the supposedly publicdiscussion on language learning and to confirm or question the ideas and research con-tained within ELT literature. The second comment that drew my attention involved a researcher’s response to alearner’s opinion on the subject of peer collaboration in the classroom. While the learnerstated that he or she could not learn anything from his or her peers, the researcher sug-gested that the ‘learner may need to be guided to re-orient his or her own expectations ofwhat the [peer] group can do for him or her’ (Slimani-Rolls, 2003, p. 228). Certainly,such situations are common within language teaching/learning, and it is well documentedthat language learners hold many such beliefs that do not correspond with what research-ers or teachers consider to be true (see Cotterall, 1999; Mori, 1999; Barcelos, 2000;Kalaja & Barcelos, 2003). However, what I took from this comment (and from my ownexperience as a teacher) is that, for right or wrong, the usual teacher/researcher responseto any mismatch between what learners believe and what research indicates is to re-orientthe learners in some way as suggested above. This re-orientation can include many thingsbut rarely does it involve plainly and explicitly sharing research findings with learnersfor them to compare their own learning experiences to. In summary, through my interaction with the literature on language teaching andlearning, as well as through reflection on my own teaching experiences, I began to appre-ciate that access to information within ELT literature is a privilege regularly accorded toresearchers and sometimes to teachers (at least those fortunate to have good libraryresources available to them), but rarely to learners. The idea that we, teachers andresearchers, tend not to share research information more explicitly with learners was anintriguing one. Thus, I saw an opportunity within my own initial foray into research totreat learners more as equal partners in the classroom by openly presenting them withlanguage research findings, encouraging them to compare these findings with their ownexperiences of learning, and letting them draw their own conclusions. Essentially, I wasinterested in whether there could be any value for me and my class in explicitly discuss-ing language research in our lessons together, and whether we could learn anything fromcomparing learner experiences with language research findings.
  • 3. 256 Language Teaching Research 15(2)II Learners as researchersFurthermore, as I wholly agreed with Freeman (1996) that ‘for too long research hasremained alienated from the lives of those in classrooms’ (p. 109), I thought it importantto not only connect my learners with the products of research (i.e. research findings) butalso involve them in its processes. This idea is at the heart of Reason’s (1994) argumentfor new approaches to human inquiry, in which he asserts that ‘research in the West[traditionally] … sees science and everyday life as separate and the researcher as subjectwithin a world of separate objects’ (p. 9). In his view, this tendency to separate createsunhelpful, artificial divisions within research between the people, processes and prod-ucts involved. Reason calls for a bridging of these divisions and suggests especially that‘we can only truly do research with persons if we engage with them as persons, asco-subjects and thus as co-researchers’ (p. 10; emphasis in original). This idea of collaborative research was appealing to me because it would help toavoid replicating the very thing I wanted to explore: the disconnect between languagelearners and language research. Therefore, I decided to act as a teacher-researcher forthis investigation and to involve my own class of learners in the study. By inviting mylearners to participate in this research project, I hoped they would begin to realize theirpotential as legitimate investigators of their own learning situations at any time, bothnow and in the future.III Method1 Context of the studyThe study was carried out with a class of English language learners attending a five-weekIntensive Academic Preparation (IAP) course at the English language centre of a largeAustralian university. The IAP course is run on demand, usually several times a year, forfull-fee paying, higher-level English language learners and is not formally assessed. Thisis because the learners attending the course must have previously fulfilled all their entryrequirements for university and are generally choosing to do five weeks of elective studyto hone their academic and English language skills while awaiting the start of their awardcourses. Their level of English proficiency, using the International English LanguageTesting System (IELTS) as a guide, is approximate to an IELTS 6.5 or greater. The IAPcurriculum outlines critical thinking, evaluation of research, debate, written arguments,journal writing, personal reflection and group tasks as integral aspects of the course. Itseeks to prepare learners for both the academic and cultural demands of studying at atertiary level in Australia.2 ParticipantsThere were six learners from China, Thailand and Korea attending the IAP course at theend of 2007: four women (Mary, Emily, Anna and Meg) and two men (Jeff and Simon).These are all pseudonyms. Mary, Emily, Anna and Meg were all English language teach-ers in their own countries and were in Australia to observe teaching methods as well asto improve their own language skills. Meanwhile, Jeff and Simon were both going on to
  • 4. Rowland 257different post-graduate award courses at the university after the IAP course; Jeff wasenrolled to do a Master in TESOL, while Simon was about to undertake a Master ofBusiness Administration. Briefly, I believe it is necessary to sketch my students in a little more detail. Thisis because I invited them to be participants and collaborators on this research project,and this is their study as much as mine. By providing a little background on my learn-ers, I also hope it is possible for the reader to appreciate how this study was tailoredto meet both the language and social needs of these particular students in this particu-lar course. The four women all had fairly advanced levels of English and were teachers of Englishin their home countries. Importantly, their position as teachers back home may haveexplained their occasional unease at being regarded as learners in Australia. This becameobvious at our first meeting, and I realized that our IAP lessons together would in someway need to address these students as both teachers and learners of English. It was hopedthat by giving them opportunities to read language research and to discuss languagelearning these teachers/students would feel validated in a sense. Another consideration was that Jeff and Simon had been studying at the languageinstitute for 15 weeks by the start of the IAP course. This meant that they had alreadycompleted certain English for Academic Purposes courses, and they expressed somereservations at having to do similar things again in the IAP class (i.e. essay and reportwriting, listening to recorded lectures, etc). Their concerns were understandable, but atthe same time I wanted to prepare them for the post-graduate studies they were about tobegin. Being a post-graduate student myself, I understood how familiarity with certaintext types, such as journal articles, could alleviate the stress surrounding the large amountof reading required during a higher degree, and so I felt that this would be a good area forJeff and Simon to focus on in our IAP lessons.3 Research approachThe research approach used in this study was Exploratory Practice (EP) (Allwright,2003, 2005; Allwright & Hanks, 2009), which is a set of guiding principles encouragingteachers and learners to investigate their own research questions as co-researchers. EPviews teachers and learners as research ‘participants’, rather than research ‘subjects’(Doyle, 2007, p. 85), and welcomes them into the research enterprise in the belief thatclassroom practitioners often require something different from and offer somethingdifferent to the products and processes of traditional research. As mentioned above, I hopedthat an EP approach would help this class (myself included) produce understandings andfindings that would be directly and primarily relevant to us.4 Data collection and analysisEP suggests that practitioners use regular pedagogical activities as data collection toolsin keeping with the desire to integrate research into the everyday classroom routine(Allwright, 2003, 2005). With this in mind, I gave my learners sets of questions to dis-cuss in groups of three during our lessons. These questions focused on the learners’ past
  • 5. 258 Language Teaching Research 15(2)experiences of language research and their ideas about the foci, purposes and audiencesof such research. The students then wrote group summaries of their discussions, high-lighting the main points and any differences of opinion within the group and presentedthese orally to the class. By doing these things, my class got the opportunity to practiselanguage skills (e.g. group discussions, summarizing and oral presentations) while alsoproviding me with a very natural opening to introduce the general research topic to ourclass (i.e. learner access to language research). Over the second, third and fourth weeks of the course, we read and discussed threelanguage teaching journal articles that focused on vocabulary notebooks (McCrostie,2007), peer feedback (Rollinson, 2005), and writing skills (Rao, 2007). After looking atthe structure of the articles and discussing some of the ideas presented within them, Iencouraged my students to concentrate on the literature review section of each article sothat they could compare and contrast their own experiences with what research sug-gested. The students typed their responses and emailed them to me. Importantly, as this was an EP study, my learners were also involved in the dataanalysis. In the final week of the course, I redistributed to the class the students’emailed comments (in anonymous form) so that we could analyse this data for com-mon themes. Having read through the student comments during the course, I also pre-sented the class with a number of themes that I felt were present in the data. Thelearners were encouraged to discuss how valid ‘my’ themes appeared to them and toadd and discuss any other themes or ideas they thought appropriate. As a member ofthe class, I joined in the discussion at times, but I was mainly interested here in givingmy students a chance to discuss and assimilate the ideas that they produced. Althoughmy students’ participation in the analysis was limited, it was crucial in helping themdevelop their own understandings about language learning and language research. Itwas also beneficial in showing them that research does not necessarily have to be off-limits to them and that teachers and learners can work together to understand languagelearning.5 Rationale for research approach and data collection/analysisAs previously mentioned, I initially selected an Exploratory Practice approach to betterconnect my learners with research processes and products. However, this was not theonly reason for choosing EP. From a pedagogical standpoint, taking an EP approach alsoallowed me to integrate our research into our regular lessons so that exploration andpedagogy were feasibly combined in our classroom. For example, the specific ELT jour-nal articles I used in class for introducing research findings to my learners also providedme as a teacher with clear examples of the common structural aspects of journal articlesthat I felt my students should become familiar with for their future studies and careers.In this way, we made use of both the content and the structure of the articles, which inte-grated our research and pedagogical purposes well. Overall, through the integration ofthe data collection and analysis into our regular lessons, the students were given theopportunity to reap the double benefit of exploring their learning situation (through ourresearch together) while at the same time improving their language skills (through ourteaching/learning together).
  • 6. Rowland 259IV FindingsOver five weeks of lessons, my learners compared and contrasted their language learningexperiences with research findings reported in language teaching journal articles. Weused three different articles consecutively during the course, one of which I have chosento focus on here: ‘Examining learner vocabulary notebooks’ (McCrostie, 2007). I havedecided to focus solely on this one because the learners’ comments about this articleclearly display the themes that occurred in their responses to all three articles. I asked mylearners to respond to the following prompt: Please read the ‘Previous research’ section (pp. 246–47) of the ‘Examining learner vocabulary notebooks’ (McCrostie, 2007) article. Pay special attention to the literature research findings we highlight in class and compare/contrast the research with your own experiences of vocabulary learning and vocabulary notebooks.First, we worked together in class to identify and discuss four of the research findingsthat were offered in the literature review section of the article. This was a way of ensur-ing that everyone understood what each of the findings implied. As the prompt explains,the learners were then asked to compare/contrast these ‘literature research findings’ withtheir own experiences. They did this orally in groups firstly and then in individual writtenpieces. Literature research finding 1: ‘Most researchers and teachers collectively agree that the recording of new words in vocabulary notebooks of one form or another should be promoted.’ (McCrostie, 2007, p. 246) The majority of my learners generally agreed with this finding; for example, Marydeclared that ‘the vocabulary notebook is very useful for my English study,’ and Megstated, ‘my vocabulary notebook played an important role in expanding my vocabulary.’Others however were more sceptical and seemed to base their scepticism in their ownlanguage learning experiences. Emily, for instance, commented that her ‘experience ofkeeping vocabulary notebooks when [she] was a university graduate did not prove to bemuch fruitful.’ One notable point that a few of the learners made, which was not addressed in thearticle, was the importance of the practicality of vocabulary notebooks. For instance,Mary emphasized that her vocabulary notebook ‘was very small and portable’. Again,this point seemed to be grounded in the learners’ wider lives and experiences; essentially,some of my students felt that if a vocabulary notebook was too big or heavy, it wouldbecome ‘a burden’ (Meg) for a learner. In turn, if a vocabulary notebook became a bur-den, it would not be used because of its impact on that learner’s life, regardless of howbeneficial it may be in a pedagogical sense. Literature research finding 2: ‘experts generally concur with the recommendation that learners should record information beyond a word and its meaning including information such as example sentences, antonyms and synonyms, pictures, and pronunciation information.’ (McCrostie, 2007, p. 246)
  • 7. 260 Language Teaching Research 15(2) Most interestingly here, Emily professed her agreement with literature research find-ing 2, while at the same time acknowledging that she had never recorded words in suchan elaborate fashion herself. In fact, in complete contrast to what research suggested, sheadmitted that she had kept a vocabulary notebook in the past in which she had simplywritten ‘long lists of individual English words together with the words’ definitions givenin Chinese’ (Emily). Regardless of this apparent mismatch in the past, as a teacher I feltthat Emily was certainly benefiting from this interaction with language research in thepresent; quite simply, when reading the research, she was in effect examining her ownpractice. Moreover, I felt that this was true for my whole class. Reading the articles in ourclasses was leading my students to substantial amounts of reflection on their own lan-guage learning practices, and I saw this as a very tangible benefit of having my learnersengage with language research. Meanwhile, other learners offered alternative ways of recording words in their vocabularynotebooks and once more they justified their practice with an explanation of how they madelearning fit in with life. For example, Mary chose to record words in her notebook in the easi-est way possible (‘most of the vocabularies in my notebook are just easily noted down of theirChinese meanings’; Mary). Similarly, Meg aimed to make her vocabulary notebook ‘simpleand clear’, in stark contrast to what literature research finding 2 was suggesting: I do not think an English learner should record everything … as some researchers recommended. A vocabulary notebook should, on the contrary, be simple and clear. I only wrote down the new word, the Chinese meaning and the pronunciation if it was not regularly pronounced. That is what I did, and I reckon it really worked! (Meg)The focus of the final two literature research findings was on the question of how learn-ers should select the words for a vocabulary notebook. Literature research finding 3: ‘it is often suggested that learners should choose the words for their notebooks independently.’ (McCrostie, 2007, p. 247) Literature research finding 4: ‘Other authors argue for a more prescriptive approach and maintain that learners should consult frequency lists in conjunction with their personal needs.’ (McCrostie, 2007, p. 247) Both of the learners who addressed literature research finding 3 (Jeff and Meg) wereof the same opinion as the researchers, agreeing that learners should choose their vocab-ulary independently. They readily explained that each learner needs to be the sole arbiterof such a decision because only learners themselves know exactly what they do not yetknow (‘When it comes to the words I record, I choose them by myself. Even thoughteachers let me know them, I won’t record them if I already know them’; Jeff), and that,importantly, this is different for each individual learner (‘I agree that learners shouldchoose the words for their notebooks independently. A teacher cannot do this for thestudents since every [student] is different’; Meg). Literature research finding 4 raised the ire of Meg in particular. She felt that it wouldbe a ‘waste of time’ to consult frequency lists before selecting a word for a vocabularynotebook. Using her own experience once more to dispute the research, Meg gave the
  • 8. Rowland 261impression that a learner’s decision to note down a word is not always dependent upon howfrequently that word is used in the language. She emphasized that there is room withinvocabulary notebooks – and thus within the learning process itself – for ‘rare words, oreven clichés’. A stronger reading of her comment below would suggest that there must beroom for these things if learning is not to be reduced to a mere mechanical process. I do not agree with the argument that learners should consult frequency lists when they decide whether to take down the word or not. That would be a waste of time! … When I took down a new word, I never considered whether it was frequently used or not. As a matter of fact, some words I kept in my notebook were rare words, or even clichés. But by and by, I came to grasp a fairly large vocabulary. (Meg)V DiscussionThis study was concerned with the possible value of discussing language research withstudents and the question of whether my class could learn anything from comparing theirexperiences with research. Although the project was primarily motivated by its potentialbenefit to the actual participants, I believe that the findings may be of value to otherpractitioners, especially those interested in the ideas of learner agency, learner perspec-tives and participatory approaches to research. Accordingly, in this section, I have triedwhere possible to link the main themes that came out of the study to current literature.One important, very recent resource for anyone interested in Exploratory Practice par-ticularly is Allwright and Hanks’ (2009) book, The developing language learner: Anintroduction to exploratory practice, in which I have found some obvious parallels withideas that came out of my own EP experience, especially surrounding the ‘five proposi-tions’ (p. 7) about learners that Allwright and Hanks present.1 The value of discussing language research with studentsa The value of reflection: Overall, my learners’ comments indicated that there certainlywas some value in discussing language research in our lessons together. Although someof the students were more than satisfied with their own language learning approaches andwere at times dismissive of what research suggested (see, for example, Meg’s commentsthroughout), they were all at least challenged by the research articles to consider theirlearning behaviours and situations and to state and defend their opinions regarding these.The abundant data that was generated through our group discussions and in the students’written pieces is evidence enough that my learners engaged in extensive reflection ontheir own learning practices. Similar to Auerbach & Paxton’s (1997) comments made after their investigation ofbringing reading research into the classroom, I am also convinced that ‘what was mostimportant … was immersing students in discussion and reflection [of research]’ (p. 257).By encouraging my students to consider where language learning research intersectswith their own learning experiences, this study helped us all to gain greater perspectiveon the wider arena of language learning in which our own daily, localized struggle withthe English language (teaching or learning) takes place.
  • 9. 262 Language Teaching Research 15(2)b The value of empowerment: The empowerment of my learners was another indicator ofthe value of discussing research with students. I use the term ‘empowerment’ here similarlyto Haque (2007), who identifies it as the shifting of ‘individual relations between teacher andstudent within the classroom’ (p. 93), and I would further extend this definition to also includethe shifting of relations between researcher and learner. Indeed, my learners’ comparisons oftheir own learning experiences with the literature research findings and the distinctions theydrew between the two are testament to the fact that we were together recognizing and explor-ing our classroom as ‘a site of contestation’ (Pennycook, 2000, p. 102). To explain further, I believe that during this study my learners began to find a voicewith which to join and to some extent critique the communal discussion on languagelearning. What is more, their voices were heard by an audience of their peers and theirteacher in our group discussions, and, further, they were aware that their comments wereto be included in a thesis and possibly other publications, albeit anonymously. In a way,they were encouraged for once to be the ‘experts’, whose opinions on the subject oflanguage learning were considered to be as valid as any researcher’s. Through both theirinvolvement in the research process and through our prioritization of their experiences oflearning, they now became ‘generators of understanding, not just consumers of it’(Allwright, 2003, p. 119). In line with Allwright and Hanks’ (2009) ‘five propositions’about learners, I felt that my students were in this instance being recognized by me andby each other as people ‘capable of taking learning seriously’ (p. 7, proposition 3).2 Learning from comparing experiences with researcha Developing learners’ personal knowledge: At times my learners had very different ideasto what was suggested in the articles. Meg’s comments, in particular, were often confron-tational. For example, she described the advice about consulting word frequency listsbefore noting down a word in a vocabulary notebook as a ‘waste of time’ and commentedon another occasion that she would keep her ‘small vocabulary notebook no matter whatthe article says about it’. Once more with reference to Allwright and Hanks’ (2009) ‘fivepropositions’, when my learners rejected the research and instead proffered their ownideas about learning, they were exhibiting the characteristics of proposition 4: ‘Learnersare capable of independent decision-making’ (p. 7). Meg’s comments particularly showedthat learners ‘are not going to be always told precisely what to do, when to do it, how todo it and who to do it with’ (Allwright & Hanks, 2009, p. 6). Yet, whenever my learners did dispute the research, it is also important to note that theyused their own experiences as support for their position, rather than, for example, explain-ing that they had read different advice or been instructed by past teachers to do thingsdifferently. I believe this is important because it shows learner recognition of, and even asense of pride in, their ‘personal knowledge’ (Snow, 2001, p. 8; see also Wu, 2006).According to Snow, this is ‘knowledge based in one’s own experience and practice’ (p. 8),and in her discussion of the nature of knowledge, Snow offers that personal knowledge ‘isan irreplaceable source of wisdom’ (p. 8). However, she does go on to qualify that per-sonal knowledge is not enough in and of itself. Just as we did together in this study, Snowadvocates that, for personal development to happen, personal knowledge ‘must be com-pared to knowledge from other sources, connected with knowledge based in research, and
  • 10. Rowland 263interwoven with knowledge derived from a theoretical perspective’ (p. 8). By being askedto state, and, to a certain extent, defend their personal knowledge in relation to ELT litera-ture research findings, my learners were engaged in a process of development along thelines of what Snow describes.b Understanding learners as individuals: Individuality was another key theme to come outof the data and one which matches precisely with Allwright and Hanks’ (2009) idea thatlearners are ‘unique individuals who learn and develop best in their own idiosyncraticways’ (p. 7, proposition 1). Furthermore, not only were my learners often contrastingtheir language learning experiences with the literature research findings, but while mak-ing these comparisons they also showed a strong awareness of the role individual experi-ence plays in distinguishing them from each other. Comments, such as the followingcapture this idea perfectly: ‘every learner has his/her special learning skills. So do I. Myway of learning is always the best for me since it suits me the best’ (Meg). We discussedthis during the data analysis stage and the students were unanimous in their demands thatthey be seen and treated as individuals. For me, the real question that arose from this,however, was just how conscious teachers and researchers (myself included) are of theimportance to learners of learner individuality. For instance, over recent years and with the rise of what has been called the ‘socialturn in the field of Second Language Acquisition’ (Block, 2003, p. 1), teachers andresearchers have become interested in ideas such as whether groups of learners – wholeclasses or even schools – are possibly ‘capable of demonstrating inquisitiveness or moti-vation as an aggregate, not only as a collection of individuals’ (McGroarty, 1998, p. 601).Yet, from my learners’ perspectives in this study, it would seem that although we mayteach students in classes and mostly research them in groups, perhaps ultimately theyreject being construed as exhibiting meaningful commonalities, as this in a way detractsfrom their individual efforts towards language learning. If truth be told, one of my learn-ers, Anna, even chided me on not sufficiently ‘mentioning the [learners’] individualities’enough during our IAP classes together. Admittedly though, this understanding of the learner as an individual does have somesupport within recent sociological conceptions of language learning. For instance,Lantolf and Pavlenko’s (2001) discussion of ‘activity theory’ (p. 143), a contemporaryinterpretation of the ‘sociocultural theory of the mind’ (p. 143), highlights the importanceof agency, or the individual’s influence over his/her particular situation, within languagelearning. Lantolf and Pavlenko describe activity theory as ‘a theory of real individualsrather than idealised abstractions’ (p. 143) in which ‘learners have to be seen as morethan processing devices …. they need to be understood as people’ (p. 145). Similarly, inhis critique of the information-processing paradigm of language learning, Block (2003)notes the overwhelming and unhelpful concern over the years ‘with the aggregate oraverage human being’ (p. 97). By juxtaposing in my mind, my learners’ individual expe-riences of language learning with the supposedly broadly applicable methods and ideasproposed in the journal articles we read together in class, I got the sense that teachers andresearchers are often perhaps forgetting that we are always (and only ever really) dealingwith individuals and, furthermore, in stark contrast, that this point is constantly forefrontin our learners’ own minds. There was a lesson here for me as a teacher.
  • 11. 264 Language Teaching Research 15(2)c The intersection of learning and life: Finally, through our discussions and reflections onlanguage learning and language research, my class began to better appreciate how learningand life intersect for students. By this I mean that from their emic perspectives (Firth &Wagner, 1997; also Guba & Lincoln, 2004) on studying English, my learners produced theidea that ultimately ‘learning has to fit in with life’ and not the other way around. For example,one of my learners rejected the elaborate method of recording words suggested in literatureresearch finding 2 as not ‘simple and clear’ (Meg) enough. To me this indicated that if anapproach to learning makes a learner’s life too difficult, it is usually rejected. When I men-tioned this idea to the students during our data analysis, they readily agreed and we thenwent on to identify and discuss other examples of where life considerations took prece-dence over learning for them. One such example was the importance of the size of vocabu-lary notebooks, which Mary explained needed to be ‘small and portable’ with Megconcurring saying that they should be ‘small enough not to make a burden in [her] school-bag’. In essence, for my students, the value of a vocabulary notebook was considereddirectly proportionate to its practicality rather than its intended pedagogical potential. In sum, we identified that it was not enough for vocabulary notebooks to help learnersimprove their language skills. My learners also required that their other basic needs anddesires relating to their everyday lives be respected and satisfied at the same time. McKay andWong (1996) frame this interplay of life and work perfectly when they offer that learners’: specific needs, desires and negotiations are not simply distractions from the proper task of language learning or accidental deviations from a ‘pure’ or ‘ideal’ language learning situation. Rather, they must be regarded as constituting the very fabric of students’ lives and as determining their investment in learning the target language. (p. 603)VI Limitations of this studyIt is clear to me, as I am sure it is to the reader, that this study was neither a perfect exampleof traditional institutional research nor a model EP study. It should also be obvious that Idid have an ideal group of student-participants for a study focusing on language education.After all, four of the six participants were teachers of English in their home countries andone other was intending to study TESOL as a post-graduate degree after our English coursetogether. It would be fair to surmise that this led to high levels of interest in the topics oflanguage learning and language research on their part. In addition to this, my students wereall reasonably high-level English language learners and so were perhaps better able tounderstand the language used in journal articles than lower level learners would be. Iacknowledge that this is an accurate assessment of the group and the situation overall. Yet, although these points may be true, I would not agree that they necessarily limitthe viability of similar teaching/research projects in different contexts. In truth, I choseto use journal articles as the vehicle to present research findings to these learners pre-cisely because the group was so well suited to such an approach. In a way, their profes-sional backgrounds and their intended areas of future study made the use of these articlesthe obvious choice. Additionally, learning about the structure, language and style ofjournal articles was also clearly related to the objectives of the IAP course and so thismethod of sharing language research with the students dovetailed nicely with the IAP
  • 12. Rowland 265syllabus. Quite simply, I believe that if teachers of lower level learners are interested inpresenting language research to their students the mode of conveying the research mighthave to be varied so that comprehension (both conceptual and linguistic) does not pose aproblem. For example, instead of using journal articles, a linguistically simplified list ofresearch findings could be drawn up and presented to the class for their discussion.VII ConclusionsOverall, throughout this study my learners related their own learning experiences to litera-ture research findings in a number of insightful ways, and the value of sharing researchproducts and processes with my class was generally confirmed. Our research togethercertainly revealed a number of valuable themes concerning my learners’ perspectives onlearning English. From their spirited defence of their personal knowledge about languagelearning, to their highlighting of ‘life before work’ as an important principle of learning,my students certainly provided me with some understanding of what was really importantto them. In a way, they took me into their individual learning lives with their commentsand opinions, and I found that although we, teachers and researchers, might feel that weare closely connected to these lives every day by virtue of our occupational proximity tolearners and learning, it is often the case that, in trying merely to provide broad languagelearning strategies to our very individual and life-sensitive learners, we are in fact driftingfurther and further away from them. Essentially, to paraphrase Allwright (2003, p. 120), itseems that our work, as teachers and researchers, needs to become less focused on the mostefficient and effective ways to learn and more focused on those aspects of our students’lives that promote or constrain learning. Furthermore, I believe that my learners – who were actually mothers, fathers, wives,husbands, teachers, university students, and foreigners in a strange new country – alsobenefited and learnt from our work together. Having the opportunity to engage with boththe products and processes of research encouraged my learners to evaluate their ownlanguage learning practices and to verbalize and defend their ideas and assumptionsabout learning. The significant amount of reflection my learners engaged in whencomparing their experiences with research was also of value to their development aslanguage learners (for a similar argument, see Allwright & Hanks, 2009). In addition tothis, my learners also valued being recognized as language learning experts in their ownright; in this study their opinions were sought, discussed and respected even where theydiffered from what research and outsider experts suggested. Considering all this, for ourfive weeks together at least, I genuinely felt that my learners were able to join the com-munal discussion on language learning and that for a short while they took their rightfulplace at the table with teachers and researchers.ReferencesAllwright, D. (2003). Exploratory practice: Rethinking practitioner research in language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 7, 113–41.Allwright, D. (2005). Developing principles for practitioner research: The case of exploratory practice. The Modern Language Journal, 89, 353–66.
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