Mind the Gap

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Do you need an MA to be a better teacher? How does learning about theory help you improve your practice?

There is a big gap in language between theory and practice. This is not just true of language teaching, but of many professions and especially more generally in the field of education. There are obvious exceptions, and we try to be one of them here at engnet-education, but for the most part practitioners are too busy with planning and marking to keep up to date on the theoretical side, especially when they perceive it has no relevance for their actual teaching. A good example would be the classic debates about things such as Universal Grammar, X-Bar theory and of course the critical period hypothesis. If you are teaching adults, the critical theory hypothesis – which states that there is a particular age after which learning a second language becomes much more difficult – will be of no use to you because you can’t simply tell your adult learners to all go back in time and study hard when they were children. In the same way, X-Bar theory is of no use to someone, even if you are teaching grammar specifically, because X-Bar theory is only useful to fill holes and add credibility to the idea of Universal Grammar. Even if you agree with Universal Grammar, it doesn’t help you teach a language. Why should teachers and practitioners trawl through peer reviewed research journals about these issues unless they can be fed back into class?

In the same way, theorists will have little or no contact with practitioners when they are researching abstract concepts such as whether language is innate or whether chimpanzees can be taught sing language. However, the examples I have just presented above are in fact extreme and they are really not illustrative of the field of applied linguistics and language teaching. There are countless theories from applied linguistics and even linguistics which have direct relevance on the things we do in the classroom to help our learners acquire language. The Involvement Load Hypothesis is a good example, it can directly influence materials design and the way we structure tasks in the classroom because it shows what type of activities are better for learners in retaining the vocabulary they have learned. For a summary see my essay here. Also, Speech Act theory, although in itself a rather abstract and yet at the same time obvious set of characteristics about how discourse works and what effect it has, can be adapted for the use of developing authentic materials with realistic dialogue and context.

There is a lot more cohesion these days between theory and practice, but people still talk about the gap as if it were a chasm. It is much closer to a simple step like the one on the London Underground – as long as you know it’s there it is not hard to step over it.

If you would be interested in doing a course all about language learning theories that can directly influence your teaching please get in touch with us. I also heartily recommend doing a Masters’ Degree if you are particularly keen and want to seriously enhance your career. King’s College London, the University of Warwick, Manchester all offer good programs which are well respected. Feel free to use the comments box below to add any other programs and thoughts on this topic.

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