iTDi Research Issue – Anna

Can I Have Your Attention, Please?

— Anna Pires

Anna Pires

My interest in the area of attention began a few years ago when I attended a meeting at my son’s school. His homeroom teacher told us what wonderful and motivated kids we had, but there was a little problem. Their teachers were complaining that they were struggling to get them to pay attention in class. I think I must have laughed out loud when she said this, and had to explain that we were trying to deal with the same problem at our school.

Julian Treasure, in his TED Talk , Five Ways To Listen Better says we’re losing our listening. According to him, 60% of our communication is spent listening, but we only retain 25% of what we hear. He says that, because we’ve invented new ways of recording, we can always catch up on what we missed on the internet, so the premium on accurate and careful listening has disappeared. This allows for distraction. Julian Treasure also talks about the noisy world we live in – a visual and aural cacophony –where shared soundscapes have turned into millions of tiny personal bubbles, with people taking refuge in headphones. He says we need to train ourselves to listen better and think this is especially the case with our students.

While discussing this talk with Ceri Jones, she described a little activity that she does with her own children, which I adapted to use with my students. I have them close their eyes and focus on all the sounds they hear and try to identify them. When they open their eyes they tell their partner what they heard – were they the same sounds? This, of course, involves a lot of giggling at the beginning, but once they get used to the activity you’ll find that they really make an effort to focus on the sounds. I also have them look around the room and notice what’s around them. They choose one object and focus on it – colour, shape, texture, etc. – and then describe it so partner has to guess the object.

I’ve also introduced mindfulness in my classes because mindfulness practice strengthens the ability to choose where to put attention and keep it there. I came across a wonderful little video called One Moment Meditation which teaches simple meditating techniques. Again, a lot of laughter the first time round, but kids really enjoy the challenge of managing that minute. Whenever I notice my students’ attention is wandering, I stop whatever I’m doing and tell them it’s time for our one moment meditation. It only takes a minute, and with better results than begging them to pay attention.

Cathy Davidson, from Duke University, has done a lot of research into the brain science of attention. She says our brains are changing and that our minds pay attention in a different way, with a shift from linear to non-linear, and our schools are not adapted for these ‘new brains’. School is linear: we complete one task after another, like an assembly line, but that’s not how our kids’ brains work outside of the classroom, and I see that just watching my son play computer games at home. Davidson also talks about ‘attention blindness’ and uses the video Selective Attention Test to illustrate this.


(Watch the video and do the test before reading any further)

I tried this test with my students and the results were fascinating. Those students who are usually focussed and always pay attention in class didn’t see the gorilla. The others, who have more problems paying attention, spotted the gorilla immediately.

Davidson says that when we’re concentrating too much on one thing, we tend to miss what’s really going on, hence the need for group learning and crowdsourcing, where multiple viewpoints make up for the limits of selectively ‘blind’ individuals. If we are responding in different ways, we need to pool together what we see in a way that is productive for everyone.

I decided to experiment with different tasks in class that allowed students to pay attention to different things. Just to give you an example, I started using the Word-Phrase-Sentence thinking routine, from Making Learning Visible when working on reading skills. I usually use this with authentic stories; texts which I know are a bit challenging for my students. After the lead in with all the prediction work using the title and visuals, I let students ask me questions about the characters and the plot. This generates a lot of interest as they try to piece together the story before reading it, and I let this go on until I see they are dying to read it. After reading to check their predictions, I ask them to find a word that captured their attention or struck them as powerful; a phrase that moved, engages or provoked them; and a sentence that was meaningful to them, that captured a core idea of the text. I put them in groups of 3s and they discuss and explain the different parts of the text that caught their attention.

David Keeling, in The Big Book of Independent Thinking says that many kids find it impossible to exist in ‘here and now’ for they are constantly preoccupied with other things that are not related to the task at hand. Children here in Portugal spend on average 8 hours at school. They are expected to sit quietly at their desks for long periods of time listening to the teacher and taking notes. When they come to our school at the end of the day for language lessons, getting them to pay attention is quite a lot to ask for. Keeling talks about the importance of assessing the following: their level of energy (can’t be asked or going through the roof), openness (how open are they to learning and contributing) and focus. I always start my lessons with warmers that will allow me to assess these 3 important things. I always finish my lessons with exit slips. At the end of each lesson I give my students a slip of paper and ask them a question that makes them reflect on what they’ve learnt in class, which they drop into a box that I have in the classroom. This enables me to find out what they paid attention to in class, which may not even be, and quite often, what I expected.

Joseph Cardillo, Can I Have Your Attention?, shares a story about his 3-year old daughter Isabella, who came prancing into the kitchen one day in her cute little tutu nearly tripping over a toy car in the middle of the room. After warning her a few times — Isabella completely oblivious as she pirouetted across the floor– he asked “Isabella, may I have your attention?”. She replied, “But, Daddy, that’s not possible because my attention is mine, so I can’t give it to anybody else.”

Cardillo, J. (2009) Can I Have Your Attention?: How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration. Career Press
Davidson, C. (2011) Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Viking Adult
Keeling, D. (2006) Chapter 1: ‘On Love, Laughter and Learning’ – The Big Book of Independent Thinking. Ian Gilbert. Crown House Publishing
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K. (2011) Making Learning Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Jossey Bass
Treasure, J. (2011) 5 Ways to Listen Better. TED Talks (

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iTDi Research Issue – Scott

On Research and Taking it Forward

Scott Thornbury

I guess I’m a big picture kind of person. I like to see (and report on) major shifts and trends, and generalize these to the widest range of contexts. So I have some problems with the issue of research – not the idea, so much as the reality. It seems to me that it is difficult to reconcile the tension between wanting to prove something worthwhile, on the one hand, and, on the other, needing to train one’s lens as narrowly as possible, in order to eliminate extraneous ‘noise’, and to deliver results that will be even remotely credible.

Years ago, Peter Strevens warned that ‘perhaps the biggest single piece of self-discipline required of the individual who undertakes a programme of research is to limit his [sic] subject, to cut it down and prune it and cut it down again until it really is a single project capable of being completed in a reasonable time’. And he adds, ‘the almost universal tendency is to take on too large a subject and to become so embroiled that it is never completed, or else it becomes dangerously superficial’ (1968:27).

‘Dangerously superficial’ is my middle name! I would love, for example to demonstrate that you can learn a language in classrooms simply by using it. But to do that I will have to (1) define ‘using it’ in ways that are measurable; (2) conduct research with a wide range of learners in terms of age, nationality, first language, motivation, level, etc – and (3) for each combination have a control group that is evenly matched with the experimental classes in every particular, including the teacher. Impossible, frankly.

So, I am reduced to conducting a much smaller-scale study: for example, following just one group of learners over a relatively short period of time, and comparing the results of a post-test with a pre-test. Whatever results I get will be suggestive at best, unlikely to be significant, and easily refutable by anybody who doesn’t want to believe them.

Of course, there’s the ‘grain of sand’ argument, i.e. that a lot of small-scale studies like mine can add up to one big conclusion. This is the point of meta-analyses of the type that Norris and Ortega (2000) did, where they crunched together the results of lots of micro-studies to generate some fairly robust conclusions about the role of instructed learning. But to do a meta-analysis properly, you have to verify the tiniest details of every study, a tedious and possibly inconclusive process.

All this assumes that the point of research is to prove something. But, of course, research can be an end in itself. Like Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’, it may be that the destination is less important than the journey. What I learn along the way, either by changing some aspect of my practice, or by scrutinizing it more closely, can only serve me in good stead. In these terms, research is simply one stage of the larger reflective cycle, without which professional development is at risk of atrophying.

However, there are some issues I would really like to see investigated, not just for the sake of the journey, but for any results, however tentative, that the research might yield. Many of them relate to the way that language emerges, particularly through interaction. And many of them overflow into one another. For example,

  • What do learners learn from each other (e.g. in pair and group work) and how durable is this learning, compared to other possible sources?
  • Is there evidence that memorized whole phrases (or chunks) are re-analyzed into their constituents, and thereby ‘release’ their grammar, at some point?  If so, which kinds of phrases, and under what conditions?
  • By the same token, what are the conditions by which isolated elements (words, phrases) are chunked into larger units that are produced and interpreted holistically? That is to say, can grammar emerge out of a kind of bricolage process?
  • Is there any correlation between phase shifts (i.e. sudden leaps forward) in one system, e.g. grammar or pronunciation, and phase shifts in another (e.g. vocabulary)? And is the correlation a causal one, e.g. does the acquisition of a critical mass of vocabulary trigger changes in grammar? If so, can we put a number on it?
  • Just what do learners ‘appropriate’ (if anything) from their teachers in ‘scaffolded’ conversations? Again, what does it take before these externally-sourced items become internally-regulated? I.e. how does ownership occur, and how can the teacher facilitate the process?
  • How much incidental learning occurs in a language class? That is, how many words or expressions do learners pick up that weren’t necessarily targeted by the teacher? How durable is this learning, and what can be done to optimize it?

Any takers?



Norris, J.M. and Ortega, L. (2000) ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’, Language Learning, 50, 417-528.

Strevens, P. (1968) ‘Linguistics and research in modern language teaching’, in Jalling, H. (ed.) Modern Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

iTDi Research Issue – Ann

My Issue With ResearchAnn Loseva

I’ve got a perception of research and it’s a twisted one. Since I graduated from university I have been going to extremes in my attitude to research work, and it seems a cyclic process which I can’t find a way to put an end to. I’m torn between my aspirations and the saddening view of reality.

The Oxford dictionary definition states that research is “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions”. Well, I would expect to see NEW as the key word here. Maybe because I’ve been teaching science students for more than three years, I’ve grown to seriously believe that research should be based upon an Extraordinary Idea — an idea which, when well thought over, explored and refined, will if not change the field, definitely make a whole lot of difference. Research in my understanding encompasses innovative thinking and its further practical applications ideally enabling change of some sort.

Research can be controversial and provoke debate (take Sugata Mitra’s SOLE project, for example), but one thing research can’t be is trite. Now let’s get down to the grounds of my skepticism towards research, especially as I have experienced how it’s done.

The “research” I was doing for my graduation thesis was neither interesting (to me or my supervisor) nor convincing. It was done solely to fill the necessary amount of paper with a certain type of a structured academic writing, enveloping unexciting ideas into even more unexciting cliché phrases. I do realize that my diligent flipping through the pages of captivating Fowles’ stories in search of contexts of several words and later categorizing them meant (and still means) nothing. Most of my mates had the same feeling. We could probably excuse this type of research for being obligatory and thus not necessarily inspirational or groundbreaking and move on, but should we?

As a general rule, a teacher has to do some research in order to teach in a higher education institution here in Russia. They are expected to be writing papers and publishing their results in local academic journals that, to be honest, I doubt anybody ever reads. I don’t believe that quality research can be an outcome of imposed will. A year ago I was rejected (actually denied even a chance for an interview) by one of the universities with an email saying that the department needed either a post-graduate student or an experienced degree holder to fit an English language teacher position. Never mind, there are lots who are willing to fit.

Finally, people “carry out research” as they want an impressive title. This looks the most pointless and least attractive reason of all to me. To feed this demand there are special agencies which help you get a PhD in any area for a fixed price. As you can imagine, there are lots who are willing to pay.

From what I’ve read in Russian since I got over my first round of frustration with the academic system here, research papers in Russia are compilations and rephrasings of somebody else’s (mostly European and American) ideas and theories. Maybe my expectations are set too high as I want to read an academic article and be thrilled. This, on second thought, only proves that I don’t have the slightest idea of what academic research is really for,  as it doesn’t seem to be conducted to please or surprise the reader.

Don’t mistake what I say for a scornful attitude, please. Yes, my view is personal as always, but it doesn’t mean I oppose research. I just don’t feel sure that the way it is offered, expected and encouraged to be done here is right. I would welcome a counter opinion — which I hope you will give me in comments below —  and would be more than happy to shift my perspective, and start believing that doing research is, in fact, meaningful. As non-professional as it might seem, my whole view of the problem is entirely through the lens of subjectiveness, so it should be crushed and criticized paragraph by paragraph by those who know better. I’m willing to listen.

If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research  – W. Mizner

Or is it..?

iTDi Research Issue – Cecilia

Correct Me If I’m WrongCeciliaLemos

Penny Ur (1991) warns us of the two distinguished components of feedback: assessment (“informing the learner how well or badly he or she has performed”) and correction (“giving the learner specific information – through explanation, provision of better alternatives or elicitation of those from the learner”). This post focuses on correction; both recent research on the topic and my own take on the effectiveness or applicability of theories and approaches in the real language classroom.

Due to my more active take on professional development in recent years, I have started to experiment with correction in the classroom. This may be a result of a post-graduate course I took on assessment with the University of Maryland in 2011, or of my reading for the Delta certificate, or of my participation in conferences and ELT-related discussions and reading. I used to teach in the way I was taught to teach, using the “Communicative Approach” to teaching – or someone’s understanding of it, at least. That meant we should avoid direct correction (to prevent students raising their affective filter) and do a lot of recasting (or reformulation).

The first thing that I let go was the ‘automatic praise’. I was taught to respond audibly positively when a student gave me a correct answer. “Excellent”, “Perfect” and “Very good” became my best friends, and I repeated them over and over. And then I questioned doing that. There is some evidence that the regular use of ‘Very Good’ delivered in a particular tone and/or package may be inhibiting learning opportunities at least in form-focused context.  (Wong & Waring, 2009). At IATEFL 2012 in Glasgow I was also touched by Jim Scrivener’s mention (in his talk about ‘Demand High ELT’) of “empty praise” – or saying those ready-made words/ phrases so often it stopped having any effect on students. It also relates to a reference about students being unimpressed by praise or criticism if they didn’t get the reasons for it (Williams & Burden 1999).

So I started, very consciously and thinking about it, to avoid giving that ‘empty praise’. Instead, I just moved on and started correcting the student whose answer prevented intelligibility. At this point I have to say I also relied on Reigel (2008) saying that positive feedback,( including responses such as head nods  – and ‘ok’ hand signs, I hope) is more likely to have an impact on the language learner than forced or contingent praise. I also relied on Willis & Willis (2008) about praising learners for good words or phrases, making them more likely to take risks and experiment with other new words and more complex utterances. I also made a point to praise questions and critical thinking in class.

I started to challenge recasting in my teaching, because I had made it my main form of correction and didn’t think it was very effective as such. I always had the feeling the students had no idea they were being corrected. More than anything, I became a ‘direct corrector’. Going against everything I had learned about the communicative approach, I started correcting my students, many times, by saying “That is not how you say it” or “Are you talking about last weekend? Because you used the verbs in the present…”

The effect this change in my teaching had on the students was noticeable. As far as I can see, it has been working better than before. The students have a much bigger sense of accomplishment and learning. They say they can objectively see what they are doing wrong (as opposed to recasting where most of them did not realize they were being corrected) and then they pay closer attention to it. They register it. Some of them may even write it down on their notebooks (as notes such as “We don’t say `I HAVE 26 years old` but rather `I AM 26 years old`.) More than anything, the students work harder at not making the same mistakes. The teacher (me!) feels better about correcting students on the spot (keeping in mind the “intelligibility” main mast) and being careful about tone and rapport. When I mention rapport I mean some extremely insecure and shy students prefer (and respond better) to more individual, after-class feedback… an individual look is still essential.

At the end of the semester I explained to my A1 CEFR students (the second semester studying English) what recasting was, and how I had done it differently with them (by clearly pointing out mistakes and correcting pronunciation that prevented understanding). And they thanked me (they even threw a party for me!), because they said they had felt their own learning.

Bottom-line: should I correct my learners in a direct way and making sure they know they’re being corrected? Using the right tone, and knowing each learner, my experiment has told me “YES” with positive echoes among my students.

iTDi Research Issue – Cherry

From India through Myanmar to the World: A journey ONLINE!Cherry 150 x 150

Research or re-search can be daunting as well as exciting for the researcher who takes it up. Every researcher begins with an assumption that what that person does has never been done before; however, as one mines through the existing literature this feeling bursts like a bubble and gives way to an effort to fit in one’s own research to a big stream of research that has already happened. This is very important because one needs to know what has happened so far and how what one is planning to take up connects with the existing research and by extension the existing body of knowledge.

The research I’m doing now is to look at and understand how social media (SM) is contributing (or not contributing) to the continuing professional development (CPD) of teachers. I chose this topic because of my two-year stint in Myanmar (Burma) at a time when the country was either cut-off or had limited access to the outside world. The personal and professional alienation I felt was alleviated to a great extent through my participation in social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The #ELTChat on Wednesdays was a breather and the many tweets that appear under that feed over the week kept me connected with the wider ELT world out there.
Back in India after the contract got over I realised how much I had gained personally as well as professionally through my participation in online learning/sharing communities like iTDi and thought to study the phenomenon in greater detail so that in places where CPD opportunities are limited or beyond reach how a teacher with access to the internet can tweak it to develop professionally. Furthermore, though India has a reputation in the world for its IT capabilities many teachers are conspicuously absent or prefer to ‘lurk’ online – another phenomenon that made me think of the possible reasons behind it and also to devise ways that could make them active online.

I too began with an assumption that social media being a recent phenomenon might have a little or no research in the area. But to my surprise I stumbled upon research that was taken up in many parts of the world over the use of the internet and its many applications for teaching and learning and of course social media were too there. The research questions that guide me at present are:

• What are the online continuing professional development (OCPD) opportunities available for ESL teachers?
• How do teachers who are aware of such opportunities make use of these opportunities?
• How do such teachers perceive the effectiveness of the OCPD opportunities with reference to their practice?
• What are the short term/long term effects of OCPD?

As part of the coursework that spreads into two semesters, I had read one on CPD. I now know how divergent our understanding of it can be as well as how complex its evaluation is. Despite being not able to find a common ground, it was uplifting to read about its presence and growing import in almost all parts of the world and teachers exercising the agency (either vested upon them or reclaimed) to find opportunities to develop professionally.
In the second semester I am doing courses on two aspects of online learning. One deals with the theories and framework (but this course is yet to gather full steam) and the other with platforms and environments. From email lists through web bulletin boards the world has come a long way in adapting media that were initially not meant for professional development. Examples of this can be either using hashtags to chat on Twitter or making the personal and the professional boundaries very thin on a social networking site like Facebook.

The story so far should not give an impression that the research is devoid of any challenges because it is not. One challenge I can anticipate in my study is to develop tools that could help me to collect data that are mostly generated online. Since the sites are all third party owned I might not have access to the user behaviour data which if gained might provide insight to how things work online. Instead I need to resort to other means of garnering data. Another could be to keep my own motivation levels high or at least in motion.

The journey so far has been demanding; but rewarding. Through the research that I had taken up I believe I will be able to contribute something that will help us to better understand a phenomenon where teachers pull down their walls and build networks around the globe and tell the world that their staffrooms exist virtually where teacher friends work 24*7 and help is always a click away!