Posts Tagged ‘blended learning’

In the last post, I suggested a range of activities that could be used in class to ‘activate’ a set of vocabulary before doing more communicative revision / recycling practice. In this, I’ll be suggesting a variety of more communicative tasks. As before, the activities require zero or minimal preparation on the part of the teacher.
1 Simple word associations
Write on the board a large selection of words that you want to recycle. Choose one word (at random) and ask the class if they can find another word on the board that they can associate with it. Ask one volunteer to (1) say what the other word is and (2) explain the association they have found between the two words. Then, draw a line through the first word and ask students if they can now choose a third word that they can associate with the second. Again, the nominated volunteer must explain the connection between the two words. Then, draw a line through the second word and ask for a connection between the third and fourth words. After three examples like this, it should be clear to the class what they need to do. Put the students into pairs or small groups and tell them to continue until there are no more words left, or it becomes too difficult to find connections / associations between the words that are left. This activity can be done simply in pairs or it can be turned into a class / group game.
As a follow-up, you might like to rearrange the pairs or groups and get students to see how many of their connections they can remember. As they are listening to the ideas of other students, ask them to decide which of the associations they found the most memorable / entertaining / interesting.
2 Association circles (variation of activity #1)
Ask students to look through their word list or flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the items that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Tell them to write these words in a circle on a sheet of paper.
Tell the students to choose, at random, one word in their circle. Next, they must find another word in the circle which they can associate in some way with the first word that they chose. They must explain this association to their partner. They must then find another word which they can associate with their second word. Again they must explain the association. They should continue in this way until they have connected all the words in their circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
3 Multiple associations
Using the same kind of circle of words, students again work with a partner. Starting with any word, they must find and explain an association with another word. Next, beginning with the word they first chose, they must find and explain an association with another word from the circle. They continue in this way until they have found connections between their first word and all the other words in the circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
4 Association dice
Prepare two lists (six in each list) of words that you want to recycle. Write these two lists on the board (list A and list B) with each word numbered 1 – 6. Each group in the class will need a dice.
First, demonstrate the activity with the whole class. Draw everyone’s attention to the two lists of the words on the board. Then roll a dice twice. Tell the students which numbers you have landed on. Explain that the first number corresponds to a word from List A and the second number to a word from List B. Think of and explain a connection / association between the two words. Organise the class into groups and ask them to continue playing the game.
Conduct feedback with the whole class. Ask them if they had any combinations of words for which they found it hard to think of a connection / association. Elicit suggestions from the whole class.
5 Picture associations #1
You will need a set of approximately eight pictures for this activity. These should be visually interesting and can be randomly chosen. If you do not have a set of pictures, you could ask the students to flick through their coursebooks and find a set of images that they find interesting or attractive. Tell them to note the page numbers. Alternatively, you could use pictures from the classroom: these might include posters on the walls, views out of the window, a mental picture of the teacher’s desk, a mental picture generated by imagining the whiteboard as a mirror, etc.
In the procedure described below, the students select the items they wish to practise. However, you may wish to select the items yourself. Make sure that students have access to dictionaries (print or online) during the lesson.
Ask the students to flip through their flashcard set or word list and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. The students should then find an association between each of the words on their list and one of the pictures that they select. They discuss their ideas with their partner, before comparing their ideas with a new partner.
6 Picture associations #2
Using the pictures and word lists (as in the activity above), students should select one picture, without telling their partner which picture they have selected. They should then look at the word list and choose four words from this list which they can associate with that picture. They then tell their four words to their partner, whose task is to guess which picture the other student was thinking of.
7 Rhyme associations
Prepare a list of approximately eight words that you want to recycle and write these on the board.
Ask the students to look at the words on the board. Tell them to work in pairs and find a word (in either English or their own language) which rhymes with each of the words on the list. If they cannot find a rhyming word, allow them to choose a word which sounds similar even if it is not a perfect rhyme.
The pairs should now find some sort of connection between each of the words on the list and their rhyming partners. When everyone has had enough time to find connections / associations, combine the pairs into groups of four, and ask them to exchange their ideas. Ask them to decide, for each word, which rhyming word and connection will be the most helpful in remembering this vocabulary.
Conduct feedback with the whole class.
8 Associations: truth and lies
In the procedure described below, no preparation is required. However, instead of asking the students to select the items they wish to practise, you may wish to select the items yourself. Make sure that students have access to dictionaries (print or online) during the lesson.
Ask students to flip through their flashcard set or word list and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. Individually, they should then write a series of sentences which contain these words: the sentences can contain one, two, or more of their target words. Half of the sentences should contain true personal information; the other half should contain false personal information.
Students then work with a partner, read their sentences aloud, and the partner must decide which sentences are true and which are false.
9 Associations: questions and answers
Prepare a list of between 12 and 20 items that you want the students to practise. Write these on the board (in any order) or distribute them as a handout.
Demonstrate the activity with the whole class before putting students into pairs. Make a question beginning with Why / How do you … / Why / How did you … / Why / How were you … which includes one of the target items from the list. The questions can be rather strange or divorced from reality. For example, if one of the words on the list were ankle, you could ask How did you break your ankle yesterday? Pretend that you are wracking your brain to think of an answer while looking at the other words on the board. Then, provide an answer, using one of the other words from the list. For example, if one of the other words were upset, you might answer I was feeling very upset about something and I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing. I fell down some steps. If necessary, do another example with the whole class to ensure that everyone understand the activity.
Tell the students to work in pairs, taking it in turns to ask and answer questions in the same way.
Conduct feedback with the whole class. Ask if there were any particularly strange questions or answers.
(I first came across a variation of this idea in a blog post by Alex Case ‘Playing with our Word Bag’
10 Associations: question and answer fortune telling
Prepare for yourself a list of items that you want to recycle. Number this list. (You will not need to show the list to anyone.)
Organise the class into pairs. Ask each pair to prepare four or five questions about the future. These questions could be personal or about the wider world around them. Give a few examples to make sure everyone understands: How many children will I have? What kind of job will I have five years from now? Who will win the next World Cup?
Tell the class that you have the answers to their questions. Hold up the list of words that you have prepared (without showing what is written on it). Elicit a question from one pair. Tell them that they must choose a number from 1 to X (depending on how many words you have on your list). Say the word aloud or write it on the board.
Tell the class that this is the answer to the question, but the answer must be ‘interpreted’. Ask the students to discuss in pairs the interpretation of the answer. You may need to demonstrate this the first time. If the question was How many children will I have? and the answer selected was precious, you might suggest that Your child will be very precious to you, but you will only have one. This activity requires a free imagination, and some classes will need some time to get used to the idea.
Continue with more questions and more answers selected blindly from the list, with students working in pairs to interpret these answers. Each time, conduct feedback with the whole class to find out who has the best interpretation.
11 Associations: narratives
In the procedure described below, no preparation is required. However, instead of asking the students to select the items they wish to practise, you may wish to select the items yourself. Make sure that students have access to dictionaries (print or online) during the lesson.
This activity often works best if it is used as a follow-up to ‘Picture Associations’. The story that the students prepare and tell should be connected to the picture that they focused on.
Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words.
Still in pairs, they should prepare a short story which contains at least seven of the items in their list. After preparing their story, they should rehearse it before exchanging stories with another student / pair of students.
To extend this activity, the various stories can be ‘passed around’ the class in the manner of the game ‘Chinese Whispers’ (‘Broken Telephone’).
12 Associations: the sentence game
Prepare a list of approximately 25 items that you want the class to practise. Write these, in any order, on one side of the whiteboard.
Explain to the class that they are going to play a game. The object of the game is to score points by making grammatically correct sentences using the words on the board. If the students use just one of these words in a sentence, they will get one point. If they use two of the words, they’ll get two points. With three words, they’ll get three points. The more ambitious they are, the more points they can score. But if their sentence is incorrect, they will get no points and they will miss their turn. Tell the class that the sentences (1) must be grammatically correct, (2) must make logical sense, (3) must be single sentences. If there is a problem with a sentence, you, the teacher, will say that it is wrong, but you will not make a correction.
Put the class into groups of four students each. Give the groups some time to begin preparing sentences which contain one or more of the words from the list.
Ask a member from one group to come to the board and write one of the sentences they have prepared. If it is an appropriate sentence, award points. Cross out the word(s) that has been used from the list on the board: this word can no longer be used. If the sentence was incorrect, explain that there is a problem and turn to a member of the next group. This person can either (1) write a new sentence that their group has prepared, or (2) try, with the help of other members of their group to correct a sentence that is on the board. If their correction is correct, they score all the points for that sentence. If their correction is incorrect, they score no points and it is the end of their turn.
The game continues in this way with each group taking it in turns to make or correct sentences on the board.

(There are a number of comedy sketches about word associations. My favourite is this one. I’ve used it from time to time in presentations on this topic, but it has absolutely no pedagogical value (… unlike the next autoplay suggestion that was made for me, which has no comedy value).

word associations


A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the sorts of things that teachers can do in classrooms to encourage the use of vocabulary apps and to deepen the learning of the learning items. You can find these here and here. In this and a future post, I want to take this a little further. These activities will be useful and appropriate for any teachers wanting to recycle target vocabulary in the classroom.

The initial deliberate learning of vocabulary usually focuses on the study of word meanings (e.g. target items along with translations), but for these items to be absorbed into the learner’s active vocabulary store, learners will need opportunities to use them in meaningful ways. Classrooms can provide rich opportunities for this. However, before setting up activities that offer learners the chance to do this, teachers will need in some way to draw attention to the items that will be practised. The simplest way of doing this is simply to ask students to review, for a few minutes, the relevant word set in their vocabulary apps or the relevant section of the word list. Here are some more interesting alternatives.

The post after this will suggest a range of activities that promote communicative, meaningful use of the target items (after they have been ‘activated’ using one or more of the activities below).

1             Memory check

Ask the students to spend a few minutes reviewing the relevant word set in their vocabulary apps or the relevant section of the word list (up to about 20 items). Alternatively, project / write the target items on the board. After a minute or two, tell the students to stop looking at the target items. Clean the board, if necessary.

Tell students to work individually and write down all the items they can remember. Allow a minute or two. Then, put the students into pairs: tell them to (1) combine their lists, (2) check their spelling, (3) check that they can translate (or define) the items they have, and (4) add to the lists. After a few minutes, tell the pairs to compare their lists with the work of another pair. Finally, allow students to see the list of target items so they can see which words they forgot.

2             Simple dictation

Tell the class that they are going to do a simple dictation, and ask them to write the numbers 1 to X (depending on how many words you wish to recycle: about 15 is recommended) on a piece of paper or in their notebooks. Dictate the words. Tell the students to work with a partner and check (1) their spelling, and (2) that they can remember the meanings of these words. Allow the students to check their answers in the vocabulary app / a dictionary / their word list / their coursebook.

3             Missing vowels dictation

As above (‘Simple dictation’), but tell the students that they must only write the consonants of the dictated words. When comparing their answers with a partner, they must reinsert the missing vowels.

4             Collocation dictation

As above (‘Simple dictation’), but instead of single words, dictate simple collocations (e.g. verb – complement combinations, adjective – noun pairings, adverb – adjective pairings). Students write down the collocations. When comparing their answers with a partner, they have an additional task: dictate the collocations again and identify one word that the students must underline. In pairs, students must think of one or two different words that can collocate with the underlined word.

5             Simple translation dictation

As above (‘Simple dictation’), but tell the students that must only write down the translation into their own language of the word (or phrase) that you have given them. Afterwards, when they are working with a partner, they must write down the English word. (This activity works well with multilingual groups – students do not need to speak the same language as their partner.)

6             Word count dictation

As above (‘Simple translation dictation’): when the students are doing the dictation, tell them that they must first silently count the number of letters in the English word and write down this number. They must also write down the translation into their own language. Afterwards, when they are working with a partner, they must write down the English word. As an addition / alternative, you can ask them to write down the first letter of the English word. (This activity works well with multilingual groups – students do not need to speak the same language as their partner.)

I first came across this activity in Morgan, J. & M. Rinvolucri (2004) Vocabulary 2nd edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

7             Dictations with tables

Before dictating the target items, draw a simple table on the board of three or more columns. At the top of each column, write the different stress patterns of the words you will dictate. Explain to the students that they must write the words you dictate into the appropriate column.

Stress patterns

As an alternative to stress patterns, you could use different categories for the columns. Examples include: numbers of syllables, vowel sounds that feature in the target items, parts of speech, semantic fields, items that students are confident about / less confident about, etc.

8             Bilingual sentence dictation

Prepare a set of short sentences (eight maximum), each of which contains one of the words that you want to recycle. These sentences could be from a vocabulary exercise that the students have previously studied in their coursebooks or example sentences from vocab apps.

Tell the class that they are going to do a dictation. Tell them that you will read some sentences in English, but they must only write down translations into their own language of these sentences. Dictate the sentences, allowing ample time for students to write their translations. Put the students into pairs or small groups. Ask them to translate these sentences back into English. (This activity works well with multilingual groups – students do not need to speak the same language as their partner.) Conduct feedback with the whole class, or allow the students to check their answers with their apps / the coursebook.

From definitions (or translations) to words

An alternative to providing learners with the learning items and asking them to check the meanings is to get them to work towards the items from the meanings. There are a very wide variety of ways of doing this and a selection of these follows below.

9             Eliciting race

Prepare a list of words that you want to recycle. These lists will need to be printed on a handout. You will need at least two copies of this handout, but for some variations of the game you will need more copies.

Divide the class into two teams. Get one student from each team to come to the front of the class and hand them the list of words. Explain that their task is to elicit from their team each of the words on the list. They must not say the word that they are trying to elicit. The first team to produce the target word wins a point, and everyone moves on to the next word.

The race can also be played with students working in pairs. One student has the list and elicits from their partner.

10          Eliciting race against the clock

As above (‘Eliciting race’), but the race is played ‘against the clock’. The teams have different lists of words (or the same lists but in a different order). Set a time limit. How many words can be elicited in, say, three minutes?

11          Mime eliciting race

As above (‘Eliciting race’), but you can ask the students who are doing the eliciting to do this silently, using mime and gesture only. A further alternative is to get students to do the eliciting by drawing pictures (as in the game of Pictionary).

12          The fly-swatting game

Write the items to be reviewed all over the board. Divide the class into two teams. Taking turns, one member of each group comes to the board. Each of the students at the board is given a fly-swatter (if this is not possible, they can use the palms of their hands). Choose one of the items and define it in some way. The students must find the word and swat it. The first person to do so wins a point for their team. You will probably want to introduce a rule where students are only allowed one swat: this means that if they swat the wrong word, the other player can take as much time as they like (and consult with their tem members) before swatting a word.

13          Word grab

Prepare the target items on one or more sets of pieces of paper / card (one item per piece of paper). With a smallish class of about 8 students, one set is enough. With larger classes, prepare one set per group (of between 4 – 8 students). Students sit in a circle with the pieces of paper spread out on a table or on the floor in the middle. The teacher calls out the definitions and the students try to be the first person to grab the appropriate piece of paper.

As an alternative to this teacher-controlled version of the game, students can work in groups of three or four (more sets of pieces of paper will be needed). One student explains a word and the others compete to grab the right word. The student with the most words at the end is the ‘winner’. In order to cover a large number of items for recycling, each table can have a different set of words. Once a group of students has exhausted the words on their table, they can exchange tables with another group.

14          Word hold-up

The procedures above can be very loud and chaotic! For a calmer class, ensure that everyone (or every group) has a supply of blank pieces of paper. Do the eliciting yourself. The first student or team to hold up the correct answer on a piece of paper wins the point.

15          Original contexts

Find the words in the contexts in which they were originally presented (e.g. in the coursebook); write the sentences with gaps on the board (or prepare this for projection). First, students work with a partner to complete the gaps. Before checking that their answers are correct, insert the first letter of each missing word so students can check their own answers. If you wish, you may also add a second letter. Once the missing words have been checked, ask the students to try to find as many different alternatives (i.e. other words that will fit syntactically and semantically) as they can for the missing words they have just inserted.

Quick follow-up activities

16          Word grouping

Once the learning items for revision have been ‘activated’ using one of the activities above, you may wish to do a quick follow-up activity before moving on to more communicative practice. A simple task type is to ask students (in pairs, so that there is some discussion and sharing of ideas) to group the learning items in one or more ways. Here are a few suggestions for ways that students can be asked to group the words: (1) words they remembered easily / words they had forgotten; (2) words they like / dislike; (3) words they think will be useful to them / will not be useful to them; (4) words that remind them of a particular time or experience (or person) in their life; (5) words they would pack in their holiday bags / words they would put in the deep-freeze and forget about for the time being (thanks to Jeremy Harmer for this last idea).


Allowing learners to determine the amount of time they spend studying, and, therefore (in theory at least) the speed of their progress is a key feature of most personalized learning programs. In cases where learners follow a linear path of pre-determined learning items, it is often the only element of personalization that the programs offer. In the Duolingo program that I am using, there are basically only two things that can be personalized: the amount of time I spend studying each day, and the possibility of jumping a number of learning items by ‘testing out’.

Self-regulated learning or self-pacing, as this is commonly referred to, has enormous intuitive appeal. It is clear that different people learn different things at different rates. We’ve known for a long time that ‘the developmental stages of child growth and the individual differences among learners make it impossible to impose a single and ‘correct’ sequence on all curricula’ (Stern, 1983: 439). It therefore follows that it makes even less sense for a group of students (typically determined by age) to be obliged to follow the same curriculum at the same pace in a one-size-fits-all approach. We have probably all experienced, as students, the frustration of being behind, or ahead of, the rest of our colleagues in a class. One student who suffered from the lockstep approach was Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. He has described how he was fed up with having to follow an educational path dictated by his age and how, as a result, individual pacing became an important element in his educational approach (Ferster, 2014: 132-133). As teachers, we have all experienced the challenges of teaching a piece of material that is too hard or too easy for many of the students in the class.

Historical attempts to facilitate self-paced learning

Charles_W__Eliot_cph_3a02149An interest in self-paced learning can be traced back to the growth of mass schooling and age-graded classes in the 19th century. In fact, the ‘factory model’ of education has never existed without critics who saw the inherent problems of imposing uniformity on groups of individuals. These critics were not marginal characters. Charles Eliot (president of Harvard from 1869 – 1909), for example, described uniformity as ‘the curse of American schools’ and argued that ‘the process of instructing students in large groups is a quite sufficient school evil without clinging to its twin evil, an inflexible program of studies’ (Grittner, 1975: 324).

Attempts to develop practical solutions were not uncommon and these are reasonably well-documented. One of the earliest, which ran from 1884 to 1894, was launched in Pueblo, Colorado and was ‘a self-paced plan that required each student to complete a sequence of lessons on an individual basis’ (Januszewski, 2001: 58-59). More ambitious was the Burk Plan (at its peak between 1912 and 1915), named after Frederick Burk of the San Francisco State Normal School, which aimed to allow students to progress through materials (including language instruction materials) at their own pace with only a limited amount of teacher presentations (Januszewski, ibid.). Then, there was the Winnetka Plan (1920s), developed by Carlton Washburne, an associate of Frederick Burk and the superintendent of public schools in Winnetka, Illinois, which also ‘allowed learners to proceed at different rates, but also recognised that learners proceed at different rates in different subjects’ (Saettler, 1990: 65). The Winnetka Plan is especially interesting in the way it presaged contemporary attempts to facilitate individualized, self-paced learning. It was described by its developers in the following terms:

A general technique [consisting] of (a) breaking up the common essentials curriculum into very definite units of achievement, (b) using complete diagnostic tests to determine whether a child has mastered each of these units, and, if not, just where his difficulties lie and, (c) the full use of self-instructive, self corrective practice materials. (Washburne, C., Vogel, M. & W.S. Gray. 1926. A Survey of the Winnetka Public Schools. Bloomington, IL: Public School Press)

Not dissimilar was the Dalton (Massachusetts) Plan in the 1920s which also used a self-paced program to accommodate the different ability levels of the children and deployed contractual agreements between students and teachers (something that remains common educational practice around the world). There were many others, both in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

The personalization of learning through self-pacing was not, therefore, a minor interest. Between 1910 and 1924, nearly 500 articles can be documented on the subject of individualization (Grittner, 1975: 328). In just three years (1929 – 1932) of one publication, The Education Digest, there were fifty-one articles dealing with individual instruction and sixty-three entries treating individual differences (Chastain, 1975: 334). Foreign language teaching did not feature significantly in these early attempts to facilitate self-pacing, but see the Burk Plan described above. Only a handful of references to language learning and self-pacing appeared in articles between 1916 and 1924 (Grittner, 1975: 328).

Disappointingly, none of these initiatives lasted long. Both costs and management issues had been significantly underestimated. Plans such as those described above were seen as progress, but not the hoped-for solution. Problems included the fact that the materials themselves were not individualized and instructional methods were too rigid (Pendleton, 1930: 199). However, concomitant with the interest in individualization (mostly, self-pacing), came the advent of educational technology.

Sidney L. Pressey, the inventor of what was arguably the first teaching machine, was inspired by his experiences with schoolchildren in rural Indiana in the 1920s where he ‘was struck by the tremendous variation in their academic abilities and how they were forced to progress together at a slow, lockstep pace that did not serve all students well’ (Ferster, 2014: 52). Although Pressey failed in his attempts to promote his teaching machines, he laid the foundation stones in the synthesizing of individualization and technology.Pressey machine

Pressey may be seen as the direct precursor of programmed instruction, now closely associated with B. F. Skinner (see my post on Behaviourism and Adaptive Learning). It is a quintessentially self-paced approach and is described by John Hattie as follows:

Programmed instruction is a teaching method of presenting new subject matter to students in graded sequence of controlled steps. A book version, for example, presents a problem or issue, then, depending on the student’s answer to a question about the material, the student chooses from optional answers which refers them to particular pages of the book to find out why they were correct or incorrect – and then proceed to the next part of the problem or issue. (Hattie, 2009: 231)

Programmed instruction was mostly used for the teaching of mathematics, but it is estimated that 4% of programmed instruction programs were for foreign languages (Saettler, 1990: 297). It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, but even by 1968 foreign language instructors were sceptical (Valdman, 1968). A survey carried out by the Center for Applied Linguistics revealed then that only about 10% of foreign language teachers at college and university reported the use of programmed materials in their departments. (Valdman, 1968: 1).grolier min max

Research studies had failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of programmed instruction (Saettler, 1990: 303). Teachers were often resistant and students were often bored, finding ‘ingenious ways to circumvent the program, including the destruction of their teaching machines!’ (Saettler, ibid.).

In the case of language learning, there were other problems. For programmed instruction to have any chance of working, it was necessary to specify rigorously the initial and terminal behaviours of the learner so that the intermediate steps leading from the former to the latter could be programmed. As Valdman (1968: 4) pointed out, this is highly problematic when it comes to languages (a point that I have made repeatedly in this blog). In addition, students missed the personal interaction that conventional instruction offered, got bored and lacked motivation (Valdman, 1968: 10).

Programmed instruction worked best when teachers were very enthusiastic, but perhaps the most significant lesson to be learned from the experiments was that it was ‘a difficult, time-consuming task to introduce programmed instruction’ (Saettler, 1990: 299). It entailed changes to well-established practices and attitudes, and for such changes to succeed there must be consideration of the social, political, and economic contexts. As Saettler (1990: 306), notes, ‘without the support of the community and the entire teaching staff, sustained innovation is unlikely’. In this light, Hattie’s research finding that ‘when comparisons are made between many methods, programmed instruction often comes near the bottom’ (Hattie, 2009: 231) comes as no great surprise.

Just as programmed instruction was in its death throes, the world of language teaching discovered individualization. Launched as a deliberate movement in the early 1970s at the Stanford Conference (Altman & Politzer, 1971), it was a ‘systematic attempt to allow for individual differences in language learning’ (Stern, 1983: 387). Inspired, in part, by the work of Carl Rogers, this ‘humanistic turn’ was a recognition that ‘each learner is unique in personality, abilities, and needs. Education must be personalized to fit the individual; the individual must not be dehumanized in order to meet the needs of an impersonal school system’ (Disick, 1975:38). In ELT, this movement found many adherents and remains extremely influential to this day.

In language teaching more generally, the movement lost impetus after a few years, ‘probably because its advocates had underestimated the magnitude of the task they had set themselves in trying to match individual learner characteristics with appropriate teaching techniques’ (Stern, 1983: 387). What precisely was meant by individualization was never adequately defined or agreed (a problem that remains to the present time). What was left was self-pacing. In 1975, it was reported that ‘to date the majority of the programs in second-language education have been characterized by a self-pacing format […]. Practice seems to indicate that ‘individualized’ instruction is being defined in the class room as students studying individually’ (Chastain, 1975: 344).

Lessons to be learned

This brief account shows that historical attempts to facilitate self-pacing have largely been characterised by failure. The starting point of all these attempts remains as valid as ever, but it is clear that practical solutions are less than simple. To avoid the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, we should perhaps try to learn from the past.

One of the greatest challenges that teachers face is dealing with different levels of ability in their classes. In any blended scenario where the online component has an element of self-pacing, the challenge will be magnified as ability differentials are likely to grow rather than decrease as a result of the self-pacing. Bart Simpson hit the nail on the head in a memorable line: ‘Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of the class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are? Coo coo!’ Self-pacing runs into immediate difficulties when it comes up against standardised tests and national or state curriculum requirements. As Ferster observes, ‘the notion of individual pacing [remains] antithetical to […] a graded classroom system, which has been the model of schools for the past century. Schools are just not equipped to deal with students who do not learn in age-processed groups, even if this system is clearly one that consistently fails its students (Ferster, 2014: 90-91).bart_simpson

Ability differences are less problematic if the teacher focusses primarily on communicative tasks in F2F time (as opposed to more teaching of language items), but this is a big ‘if’. Many teachers are unsure of how to move towards a more communicative style of teaching, not least in large classes in compulsory schooling. Since there are strong arguments that students would benefit from a more communicative, less transmission-oriented approach anyway, it makes sense to focus institutional resources on equipping teachers with the necessary skills, as well as providing support, before a shift to a blended, more self-paced approach is implemented.

Such issues are less important in private institutions, which are not age-graded, and in self-study contexts. However, even here there may be reasons to proceed cautiously before buying into self-paced approaches. Self-pacing is closely tied to autonomous goal-setting (which I will look at in more detail in another post). Both require a degree of self-awareness at a cognitive and emotional level (McMahon & Oliver, 2001), but not all students have such self-awareness (Magill, 2008). If students do not have the appropriate self-regulatory strategies and are simply left to pace themselves, there is a chance that they will ‘misregulate their learning, exerting control in a misguided or counterproductive fashion and not achieving the desired result’ (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013: 177). Before launching students on a path of self-paced language study, ‘thought needs to be given to the process involved in users becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). Without training and support provided both before and during the self-paced study, the chances of dropping out are high (as we see from the very high attrition rate in language apps).

However well-intentioned, many past attempts to facilitate self-pacing have also suffered from the poor quality of the learning materials. The focus was more on the technology of delivery, and this remains the case today, as many posts on this blog illustrate. Contemporary companies offering language learning programmes show relatively little interest in the content of the learning (take Duolingo as an example). Few app developers show signs of investing in experienced curriculum specialists or materials writers. Glossy photos, contemporary videos, good UX and clever gamification, all of which become dull and repetitive after a while, do not compensate for poorly designed materials.

Over forty years ago, a review of self-paced learning concluded that the evidence on its benefits was inconclusive (Allison, 1975: 5). Nothing has changed since. For some people, in some contexts, for some of the time, self-paced learning may work. Claims that go beyond that cannot be substantiated.


Allison, E. 1975. ‘Self-Paced Instruction: A Review’ The Journal of Economic Education 7 / 1: 5 – 12

Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

Chastain, K. 1975. ‘An Examination of the Basic Assumptions of “Individualized” Instruction’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 334 – 344

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Ferster, B. 2014. Teaching Machines. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Grittner, F. M. 1975. ‘Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 323 – 333

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Januszewski, A. 2001. Educational Technology: The Development of a Concept. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited

Kirschner, P. A. & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. 2013. ‘Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education’ Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183

Magill, D. S. 2008. ‘What Part of Self-Paced Don’t You Understand?’ University of Wisconsin 24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning Conference Proceedings.

McMahon, M. & Oliver, R. 2001. ‘Promoting self-regulated learning in an on-line environment’ in C. Montgomerie & J. Viteli (eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (pp. 1299-1305). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Pendleton, C. S. 1930. ‘Personalizing English Teaching’ Peabody Journal of Education 7 / 4: 195 – 200

Saettler, P. 1990. The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Denver: Libraries Unlimited

Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Valdman, A. 1968. ‘Programmed Instruction versus Guided Learning in Foreign Language Acquisition’ Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German 1 / 2: 1 – 14


by Philip Kerr & Andrew Wickham

from IATEFL 2016 Birmingham Conference Selections (ed. Tania Pattison) Faversham, Kent: IATEFL pp. 75 – 78

ELT publishing, international language testing and private language schools are all industries: products are produced, bought and sold for profit. English language teaching (ELT) is not. It is an umbrella term that is used to describe a range of activities, some of which are industries, and some of which (such as English teaching in high schools around the world) might better be described as public services. ELT, like education more generally, is, nevertheless, often referred to as an ‘industry’.

Education in a neoliberal world

The framing of ELT as an industry is both a reflection of how we understand the term and a force that shapes our understanding. Associated with the idea of ‘industry’ is a constellation of other ideas and words (such as efficacy, productivity, privatization, marketization, consumerization, digitalization and globalization) which become a part of ELT once it is framed as an industry. Repeated often enough, ‘ELT as an industry’ can become a metaphor that we think and live by. Those activities that fall under the ELT umbrella, but which are not industries, become associated with the desirability of industrial practices through such discourse.

The shift from education, seen as a public service, to educational managerialism (where education is seen in industrial terms with a focus on efficiency, free market competition, privatization and a view of students as customers) can be traced to the 1980s and 1990s (Gewirtz, 2001). In 1999, under pressure from developed economies, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) transformed education into a commodity that could be traded like any other in the marketplace (Robertson, 2006). The global industrialisation and privatization of education continues to be promoted by transnational organisations (such as the World Bank and the OECD), well-funded free-market think-tanks (such as the Cato Institute), philanthro-capitalist foundations (such as the Gates Foundation) and educational businesses (such as Pearson) (Ball, 2012).

Efficacy and learning outcomes

Managerialist approaches to education require educational products and services to be measured and compared. In ELT, the most visible manifestation of this requirement is the current ubiquity of learning outcomes. Contemporary coursebooks are full of ‘can-do’ statements, although these are not necessarily of any value to anyone. Examples from one unit of one best-selling course include ‘Now I can understand advice people give about hotels’ and ‘Now I can read an article about unique hotels’ (McCarthy et al. 2014: 74). However, in a world where accountability is paramount, they are deemed indispensable. The problem from a pedagogical perspective is that teaching input does not necessarily equate with learning uptake. Indeed, there is no reason why it should.

Drawing on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for inspiration, new performance scales have emerged in recent years. These include the Cambridge English Scale and the Pearson Global Scale of English. Moving away from the broad six categories of the CEFR, such scales permit finer-grained measurement and we now see individual vocabulary and grammar items tagged to levels. Whilst such initiatives undoubtedly support measurements of efficacy, the problem from a pedagogical perspective is that they assume that language learning is linear and incremental, as opposed to complex and jagged.

Given the importance accorded to the measurement of language learning (or what might pass for language learning), it is unsurprising that attention is shifting towards the measurement of what is probably the most important factor impacting on learning: the teaching. Teacher competency scales have been developed by Cambridge Assessment, the British Council and EAQUALS (Evaluation and Accreditation of Quality Language Services), among others.

The backwash effects of the deployment of such scales are yet to be fully experienced, but the likely increase in the perception of both language learning and teacher learning as the synthesis of granularised ‘bits of knowledge’ is cause for concern.

Digital technology

Digital technology may offer advantages to both English language teachers and learners, but its rapid growth in language learning is the result, primarily but not exclusively, of the way it has been promoted by those who stand to gain financially. In education, generally, and in English language teaching, more specifically, advocacy of the privatization of education is always accompanied by advocacy of digitalization. The global market for digital English language learning products was reported to be $2.8 billion in 2015 and is predicted to reach $3.8 billion by 2020 (Ambient Insight, 2016).

In tandem with the increased interest in measuring learning outcomes, there is fierce competition in the market for high-stakes examinations, and these are increasingly digitally delivered and marked. In the face of this competition and in a climate of digital disruption, companies like Pearson and Cambridge English are developing business models of vertical integration where they can provide and sell everything from placement testing, to courseware (either print or delivered through an LMS), teaching, assessment and teacher training. Huge investments are being made in pursuit of such models. Pearson, for example, recently bought GlobalEnglish, Wall Street English, and set up a partnership with Busuu, thus covering all aspects of language learning from resources provision and publishing to off- and online training delivery.

As regards assessment, the most recent adult coursebook from Cambridge University Press (in collaboration with Cambridge English Language Assessment), ‘Empower’ (Doff, et. Al, 2015) sells itself on a combination of course material with integrated, validated assessment.

Besides its potential for scalability (and therefore greater profit margins), the appeal (to some) of platform-delivered English language instruction is that it facilitates assessment that is much finer-grained and actionable in real time. Digitization and testing go hand in hand.

Few English language teachers have been unaffected by the move towards digital. In the state sectors, large-scale digitization initiatives (such as the distribution of laptops for educational purposes, the installation of interactive whiteboards, the move towards blended models of instruction or the move away from printed coursebooks) are becoming commonplace. In the private sectors, online (or partially online) language schools are taking market share from the traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions.

These changes have entailed modifications to the skill-sets that teachers need to have. Two announcements at this conference reflect this shift. First of all, Cambridge English launched their ‘Digital Framework for Teachers’, a matrix of six broad competency areas organised into four levels of proficiency. Secondly, Aqueduto, the Association for Quality Education and Training Online, was launched, setting itself up as an accreditation body for online or blended teacher training courses.

Teachers’ pay and conditions

In the United States, and likely soon in the UK, the move towards privatization is accompanied by an overt attack on teachers’ unions, rights, pay and conditions (Selwyn, 2014). As English language teaching in both public and private sectors is commodified and marketized it is no surprise to find that the drive to bring down costs has a negative impact on teachers worldwide. Gwynt (2015), for example, catalogues cuts in funding, large-scale redundancies, a narrowing of the curriculum, intensified workloads (including the need to comply with ‘quality control measures’), the deskilling of teachers, dilapidated buildings, minimal resources and low morale in an ESOL department in one British further education college. In France, a large-scale study by Wickham, Cagnol, Wright and Oldmeadow (Linguaid, 2015; Wright, 2016) found that EFL teachers in the very competitive private sector typically had multiple employers, limited or no job security, limited sick pay and holiday pay, very little training and low hourly rates that were deteriorating. One of the principle drivers of the pressure on salaries is the rise of online training delivery through Skype and other online platforms, using offshore teachers in low-cost countries such as the Philippines. This type of training represents 15% in value and up to 25% in volume of all language training in the French corporate sector and is developing fast in emerging countries. These examples are illustrative of a broad global trend.


Given the current climate, teachers will benefit from closer networking with fellow professionals in order, not least, to be aware of the rapidly changing landscape. It is likely that they will need to develop and extend their skill sets (especially their online skills and visibility and their specialised knowledge), to differentiate themselves from competitors and to be able to demonstrate that they are in tune with current demands. More generally, it is important to recognise that current trends have yet to run their full course. Conditions for teachers are likely to deteriorate further before they improve. More than ever before, teachers who want to have any kind of influence on the way that marketization and industrialization are shaping their working lives will need to do so collectively.


Ambient Insight. 2016. The 2015-2020 Worldwide Digital English Language Learning Market.

Ball, S. J. 2012. Global Education Inc. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Doff, A., Thaine, C., Puchta, H., Stranks, J. and P. Lewis-Jones 2015. Empower. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gewirtz, S. 2001. The Managerial School: Post-welfarism and Social Justice in Education. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Gwynt, W. 2015. ‘The effects of policy changes on ESOL’. Language Issues 26 / 2: 58 – 60

McCarthy, M., McCarten, J. and H. Sandiford 2014. Touchstone 2 Student’s Book Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Linguaid, 2015. Le Marché de la Formation Langues à l’Heure de la Mondialisation. Guildford: Linguaid

Robertson, S. L. 2006. ‘Globalisation, GATS and trading in education services.’ published by the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK at

Selwyn, N. 2014. Distrusting Educational Technology. New York: Routledge

Wright, R. 2016. ‘My teacher is rich … or not!’ English Teaching Professional 103: 54 – 56



‘Sticky’ – as in ‘sticky learning’ or ‘sticky content’ (as opposed to ‘sticky fingers’ or a ‘sticky problem’) – is itself fast becoming a sticky word. If you check out ‘sticky learning’ on Google Trends, you’ll see that it suddenly spiked in September 2011, following the slightly earlier appearance of ‘sticky content’. The historical rise in this use of the word coincides with the exponential growth in the number of references to ‘big data’.

I am often asked if adaptive learning really will take off as a big thing in language learning. Will adaptivity itself be a sticky idea? When the question is asked, people mean the big data variety of adaptive learning, rather than the much more limited adaptivity of spaced repetition algorithms, which, I think, is firmly here and here to stay. I can’t answer the question with any confidence, but I recently came across a book which suggests a useful way of approaching the question.

41u+NEyWjnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse’ by Jack Schneider (Harvard Education Press, 2014) investigates the reasons why promising ideas from education research fail to get taken up by practitioners, and why other, less-than-promising ideas, from a research or theoretical perspective, become sticky quite quickly. As an example of the former, Schneider considers Robert Sternberg’s ‘Triarchic Theory’. As an example of the latter, he devotes a chapter to Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences Theory’.

Schneider argues that educational ideas need to possess four key attributes in order for teachers to sit up, take notice and adopt them.

  1. perceived significance: the idea must answer a question central to the profession – offering a big-picture understanding rather than merely one small piece of a larger puzzle
  2. philosophical compatibility: the idea must clearly jibe with closely held [teacher] beliefs like the idea that teachers are professionals, or that all children can learn
  3. occupational realism: it must be possible for the idea to be put easily into immediate use
  4. transportability: the idea needs to find its practical expression in a form that teachers can access and use at the time that they need it – it needs to have a simple core that can travel through pre-service coursework, professional development seminars, independent study and peer networks

To what extent does big data adaptive learning possess these attributes? It certainly comes up trumps with respect to perceived significance. The big question that it attempts to answer is the question of how we can make language learning personalized / differentiated / individualised. As its advocates never cease to remind us, adaptive learning holds out the promise of moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach. The extent to which it can keep this promise is another matter, of course. For it to do so, it will never be enough just to offer different pathways through a digitalised coursebook (or its equivalent). Much, much more content will be needed: at least five or six times the content of a one-size-fits-all coursebook. At the moment, there is little evidence of the necessary investment into content being made (quite the opposite, in fact), but the idea remains powerful nevertheless.

When it comes to philosophical compatibility, adaptive learning begins to run into difficulties. Despite the decades of edging towards more communicative approaches in language teaching, research (e.g. the research into English teaching in Turkey described in a previous post), suggests that teachers still see explanation and explication as key functions of their jobs. They believe that they know their students best and they know what is best for them. Big data adaptive learning challenges these beliefs head on. It is no doubt for this reason that companies like Knewton make such a point of claiming that their technology is there to help teachers. But Jose Ferreira doth protest too much, methinks. Platform-delivered adaptive learning is a direct threat to teachers’ professionalism, their salaries and their jobs.

Occupational realism is more problematic still. Very, very few language teachers around the world have any experience of truly blended learning, and it’s very difficult to envisage precisely what it is that the teacher should be doing in a classroom. Publishers moving towards larger-scale blended adaptive materials know that this is a big problem, and are actively looking at ways of packaging teacher training / teacher development (with a specific focus on blended contexts) into the learner-facing materials that they sell. But the problem won’t go away. Education ministries have a long history of throwing money at technological ‘solutions’ without thinking about obtaining the necessary buy-in from their employees. It is safe to predict that this is something that is unlikely to change. Moreover, learning how to become a blended teacher is much harder than learning, say, how to make good use of an interactive whiteboard. Since there are as many different blended adaptive approaches as there are different educational contexts, there cannot be (irony of ironies) a one-size-fits-all approach to training teachers to make good use of this software.

Finally, how transportable is big data adaptive learning? Not very, is the short answer, and for the same reasons that ‘occupational realism’ is highly problematic.

Looking at things through Jack Schneider’s lens, we might be tempted to come to the conclusion that the future for adaptive learning is a rocky path, at best. But Schneider doesn’t take political or economic considerations into account. Sternberg’s ‘Triarchic Theory’ never had the OECD or the Gates Foundation backing it up. It never had millions and millions of dollars of investment behind it. As we know from political elections (and the big data adaptive learning issue is a profoundly political one), big bucks can buy opinions.

It may also prove to be the case that the opinions of teachers don’t actually matter much. If the big adaptive bucks can win the educational debate at the highest policy-making levels, teachers will be the first victims of the ‘creative disruption’ that adaptivity promises. If you don’t believe me, just look at what is going on in the U.S.

There are causes for concern, but I don’t want to sound too alarmist. Nobody really has a clue whether big data adaptivity will actually work in language learning terms. It remains more of a theory than a research-endorsed practice. And to end on a positive note, regardless of how sticky it proves to be, it might just provide the shot-in-the-arm realisation that language teachers, at their best, are a lot more than competent explainers of grammar or deliverers of gap-fills.

It’s a good time to be in Turkey if you have digital ELT products to sell. Not so good if you happen to be an English language learner. This post takes a look at both sides of the Turkish lira.

OUP, probably the most significant of the big ELT publishers in Turkey, recorded ‘an outstanding performance’ in the country in the last financial year, making it their 5th largest ELT market. OUP’s annual report for 2013 – 2014 describes the particularly strong demand for digital products and services, a demand which is now influencing OUP’s global strategy for digital resources. When asked about the future of ELT, Peter Marshall , Managing Director of OUP’s ELT Division, suggested that Turkey was a country that could point us in the direction of an answer to the question. Marshall and OUP will be hoping that OUP’s recently launched Digital Learning Platform (DLP) ‘for the global distribution of adult and secondary ELT materials’ will be an important part of that future, in Turkey and elsewhere. I can’t think of any good reason for doubting their belief.

tbl-ipad1OUP aren’t the only ones eagerly checking the pound-lira exchange rates. For the last year, CUP also reported ‘significant sales successes’ in Turkey in their annual report . For CUP, too, it was a year in which digital development has been ‘a top priority’. CUP’s Turkish success story has been primarily driven by a deal with Anadolu University (more about this below) to provide ‘a print and online solution to train 1.7 million students’ using their Touchstone course. This was the biggest single sale in CUP’s history and has inspired publishers, both within CUP and outside, to attempt to emulate the deal. The new blended products will, of course, be adaptive.

Just how big is the Turkish digital ELT pie? According to a 2014 report from Ambient Insight , revenues from digital ELT products reached $32.0 million in 2013. They are forecast to more than double to $72.6 million in 2018. This is a growth rate of 17.8%, a rate which is practically unbeatable in any large economy, and Turkey is the 17th largest economy in the world, according to World Bank statistics .

So, what makes Turkey special?

  • Turkey has a large and young population that is growing by about 1.4% each year, which is equivalent to approximately 1 million people. According to the Turkish Ministry of Education, there are currently about 5.5 million students enrolled in upper-secondary schools. Significant growth in numbers is certain.
  • Turkey is currently in the middle of a government-sponsored $990 million project to increase the level of English proficiency in schools. The government’s target is to position the country as one of the top ten global economies by 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, and it believes that this position will be more reachable if it has a population with the requisite foreign language (i.e. English) skills. As part of this project, the government has begun to introduce English in the 1st grade (previously it was in the 4th grade).
  • The level of English in Turkey is famously low and has been described as a ‘national weakness’. In October/November 2011, the Turkish research institute SETA and the Turkish Ministry for Youth and Sports conducted a large survey across Turkey of 10,174 young citizens, aged 15 to 29. The result was sobering: 59 per cent of the young people said they “did not know any foreign language.” A recent British Council report (2013) found the competence level in English of most (90+%) students across Turkey was evidenced as rudimentary – even after 1000+ hours (estimated at end of Grade 12) of English classes. This is, of course, good news for vendors of English language learning / teaching materials.
  • Turkey has launched one of the world’s largest educational technology projects: the FATIH Project (The Movement to Enhance Opportunities and Improve Technology). One of its objectives is to provide tablets for every student between grades 5 and 12. At the same time, according to the Ambient report , the intention is to ‘replace all print-based textbooks with digital content (both eTextbooks and online courses).’
  • Purchasing power in Turkey is concentrated in a relatively small number of hands, with the government as the most important player. Institutions are often very large. Anadolu University, for example, is the second largest university in the world, with over 2 million students, most of whom are studying in virtual classrooms. There are two important consequences of this. Firstly, it makes scalable, big-data-driven LMS-delivered courses with adaptive software a more attractive proposition to purchasers. Secondly, it facilitates the B2B sales model that is now preferred by vendors (including the big ELT publishers).
  • Turkey also has a ‘burgeoning private education sector’, according to Peter Marshall, and a thriving English language school industry. According to Ambient ‘commercial English language learning in Turkey is a $400 million industry with over 600 private schools across the country’. Many of these are grouped into large chains (see the bullet point above).
  • Turkey is also ‘in the vanguard of the adoption of educational technology in ELT’, according to Peter Marshall. With 36 million internet users, the 5th largest internet population in Europe, and the 3rd highest online engagement in Europe, measured by time spent online, (reported by Sina Afra ), the country’s enthusiasm for educational technology is not surprising. Ambient reports that ‘the growth rate for mobile English educational apps is 27.3%’. This enthusiasm is reflected in Turkey’s thriving ELT conference scene. The most popular conference themes and conference presentations are concerned with edtech. A keynote speech by Esat Uğurlu at the ISTEK schools 3rd international ELT conference at Yeditepe in April 2013 gives a flavour of the current interests. The talk was entitled ‘E-Learning: There is nothing to be afraid of and plenty to discover’.

All of the above makes Turkey a good place to be if you’re selling digital ELT products, even though the competition is pretty fierce. If your product isn’t adaptive, personalized and gamified, you may as well not bother.

What impact will all this have on Turkey’s English language learners? A report co-produced by TEPAV (the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey) and the British Council in November 2013 suggests some of the answers, at least in the school population. The report  is entitled ‘Turkey National Needs Assessment of State School English Language Teaching’ and its Executive Summary is brutally frank in its analysis of the low achievements in English language learning in the country. It states:

The teaching of English as a subject and not a language of communication was observed in all schools visited. This grammar-based approach was identified as the first of five main factors that, in the opinion of this report, lead to the failure of Turkish students to speak/ understand English on graduation from High School, despite having received an estimated 1000+ hours of classroom instruction.

In all classes observed, students fail to learn how to communicate and function independently in English. Instead, the present teacher-centric, classroom practice focuses on students learning how to answer teachers’ questions (where there is only one, textbook-type ‘right’ answer), how to complete written exercises in a textbook, and how to pass a grammar-based test. Thus grammar-based exams/grammar tests (with right/wrong answers) drive the teaching and learning process from Grade 4 onwards. This type of classroom practice dominates all English lessons and is presented as the second causal factor with respect to the failure of Turkish students to speak/understand English.

The problem, in other words, is the curriculum and the teaching. In its recommendations, the report makes this crystal clear. Priority needs to be given to developing a revised curriculum and ‘a comprehensive and sustainable system of in-service teacher training for English teachers’. Curriculum renewal and programmes of teacher training / development are the necessary prerequisites for the successful implementation of a programme of educational digitalization. Unfortunately, research has shown again and again that these take a long time and outcomes are difficult to predict in advance.

By going for digitalization first, Turkey is taking a huge risk. What LMSs, adaptive software and most apps do best is the teaching of language knowledge (grammar and vocabulary), not the provision of opportunities for communicative practice (for which there is currently no shortage of opportunity … it is just that these opportunities are not being taken). There is a real danger, therefore, that the technology will push learning priorities in precisely the opposite direction to that which is needed. Without significant investments in curriculum reform and teacher training, how likely is it that the transmission-oriented culture of English language teaching and learning will change?

Even if the money for curriculum reform and teacher training were found, it is also highly unlikely that effective country-wide approaches to blended learning for English would develop before the current generation of tablets and their accompanying content become obsolete.

Sadly, the probability is, once more, that educational technology will be a problem-changer, even a problem-magnifier, rather than a problem-solver. I’d love to be wrong.

I suggested in my last post that vocabulary flashcard systems can have a useful role to play in blended learning contexts. However, for their potential to be exploited, teachers will need to devote classroom time to the things that the apps, on their own, cannot do. This post looks in some detail at what teachers can do.

Spaced repetition may be important to long-term memorization of new vocabulary items, but it will not be enough on its own. Memory researchers refer to three techniques that will improve speed of retention and long-term recall. The first of these is called the ‘generation effect’ – the use of even a little cognitive effort in generating the answer in flashcard practice. A simple example is provided by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel[1]: simply asking a subject to fill in a word’s missing letters resulted in better memory of the word. […] For a pair like foot-shoe, those who studied the pair intact had lower subsequent recall than those who studied the pair from a clue as obvious as foot-s _ _ e. In vocabulary learning, there is much that learners need to know beyond the meaning or translation equivalent: pronunciation, collocation, and associated grammatical patterns, for example. A focus on these aspects of word knowledge will all deepen that knowledge, but can enhance memorization at the same time.

The second of these techniques is called ‘elaboration’ – the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later[2]. Explaining the meaning or rules of use of a target vocabulary item to a fellow student, or explaining how this word has significance in your life outside the classroom are simple examples of elaboration. Whilst elaboration is important in any kind of memorization, it is probably especially important in vocabulary learning. If the mental lexicon is a network of associations (and we don’t really have a better way of describing it right now!), the fostering of multiple associations or connections will be a vital part of building up this lexicon: When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced[3].

The third of these is getting the right kind of feedback. Feedback on flashcard software is typically of the right / wrong variety. At some point, this is obviously necessary, but it has its limitations. First of all, it is usually immediate, and research[4] suggests that a slight delay in getting feedback aids recall. With immediate feedback, learners can easily come to over-rely on it. Secondly, intelligent, scaffolded feedback (e.g. with hints and cues, rather than simple provision of the correct answer) contributes to the ‘generation effect’ (see above). Thirdly, positive feedback (e.g. where a learner sees that she can accurately and appropriately use new items, especially in new contexts) will enhance both learning and motivation. Flashcard software almost invariably presents and practises vocabulary in one context only, and rarely requires learners to produce the language in a communicative context.

The practical classroom suggestions that follow are all attempts to address the issues raised above. This is not in any way a complete list, and I have prioritized, in the ‘Practice Activities’ section, those tasks that offer more than simple re-exposure (for example, activities such as ‘Hangman’, word quizzes, word squares, definition games, and so on). But I hope that it will be a useful starting point.

Preparation activities

  • Put students into pairs and give them a few minutes (at any moment in a lesson, but this is often done at the start) to test each other on the words they are studying.
  • On a regular basis, allocate some classroom time for students to edit / improve their flashcards. This is best done in pairs. Tasks that you could set include: (1) students find example sentences to add to their cards; (2) students find more memorable / amusing example sentences to add to their cards; (3) students research and find useful phrases which include their target items, and add these to their cards; (4) students research and find common collocations of their target words and add these to their cards; (5) students research and find pictures (from an online image search) which they can use to replace their own-language translations; (6) students research, find and add to their cards other parts of speech; (7) students find recordings (via online dictionaries) of their target items and add them to their cards; (8) students record themselves saying the target items and add these to their cards; (9) students gap (or anagrammatize) some of the letters on the English sides of their cards; (10) students compare cards, discuss which are more memorable, and edit their own if they think this is useful
  • The ultimate hope is that learners will become more autonomous in their vocabulary learning. To this end, I’d thoroughly endorse Daniel Barber’s suggestion in a comment on my previous post: get the class to use and review the various wordcard apps and feed back to their classmates, i.e. to discover for themselves the relative merits of digital vs. hand-written / Anki vs. Quizlet and decide for themselves what’s best.

Practice activities

  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Ask the pairs to put their words into groups. Initially, it will probably be best to suggest the kinds of groupings they could use. For example: (1) words they think they would probably need to use in their first week in an English-speaking country vs. words they think they are unlikely to need in their first week in an English-speaking country, (2) words they like (for whatever reason) vs. words they dislike; (3) words they can associate with good things vs. words which they can associate with bad things. When students are familiar with this activity type, they can choose their own categories. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Tell them to write these words in a circle on a sheet of paper. word_circle Tell the students to choose, at random, one word in their circle. Next, they must find another word in the circle which they can associate in some way with the first word that they chose. They must explain this association to their partner. They must then find another word which they can associate with their second word. Again they must explain the association. They should continue in this way until they have connected all the words in their circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
  • Using the same kind of circle of words (as in the activity above), students again work with a partner. Starting with any word, they must find and explain an association with another word. Next, beginning with the word they first chose, they must find and explain an association with another word from the circle. They continue in this way until they have found connections between their first word and all the other words in the circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
  • Ask the students to flick through their coursebooks and find four or five images that they find interesting or attractive. Tell them to note the page numbers. straightforward-upperintermediate-sb-1-638 Then, ask the students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. The students should then find an association between each of the words on their list and one of the pictures they have selected. They discuss their ideas with their partner, before comparing their ideas with a new partner.
  • Using the pictures and word lists (as in the activity above), students should select one picture, without telling their partner which picture they have selected. They should then look at the word list and choose four words from this list which they can associate with that picture. They then tell their four words to their partner, whose task is to guess which picture the other student was thinking of.
  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. Individually, they should then write a series of sentences which contain these words: the sentences can contain one, two, or more of their target words. Half of the sentences should contain true personal information; the other half should contain false personal information. Students then work with a partner, read their sentences aloud, and the partner must decide which sentences are true and which are false.
  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Still in pairs, they should prepare a short story which contains at least seven of the items in their list. After preparing their story, they should rehearse it before exchanging stories with another student / pair of students.
  • There’s a fun question-and-answer game, ‘Any Which Way Matching’, from Alex Case, which can be used with any set of vocabulary. It can be found here:
  • Play a class game which recycles the vocabulary that students are having difficulty remembering. You can find the rules for one game, ‘Words in sentences’, which can be used with any set of vocabulary here:

[1] Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014) p.32

[2] ibid p.5

[3] Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) pp.241-242

[4] Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014)  pp.39 – 40

After my second aborted attempt to learn some German through Duolingo, I decided to try something a little different. I started using word cards with my students many years ago, but when I say ‘word cards’, I mean word cards (i.e. on pieces of card). Although more recently I’ve encouraged students to use digital word cards with adaptive elements, I’d never seriously experimented with them myself. What I’ve learnt is that, whilst digital word cards are superior in many ways to the old-fashioned cards on card, the problems and limitations remain more or less the same.

Deliberate learning of vocabulary through the use of word cards is well supported by research: Every piece of research comparing deliberate learning with incidental learning has shown that deliberate word learning easily beats incidental vocabulary learning in terms of the time taken to learn and the amount learnt. The deliberate learning studies also show that such learning lasts for a very long time. (Nation, I.S.P. 2008 Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning) p.104) The current crop of digital word cards simplify the learner’s task enormously by allowing sets of words to be imported into the programs, by automatically calculating the intervals between repetitions / exposures, and by offering a range of task types and gamification elements to help motivation. I can’t imagine going back to old-fashioned dog-eared cards stuffed into a ‘vocab bag’.

anki-16I’ve been using Anki , but I didn’t choose it in preference to one of the many other free systems, such as Quizlet , for any particular reason. I’ve looked at a number of these systems, and, frankly, I don’t have any strong preference. Some have games, which are fun for a few minutes. Some have better gamification features than others. Some seem easier than others to use. It’s a fiercely competitive world, and new features are being constantly added. For any teacher wanting to try these word cards (or flash cards) for the first time – either with their students, or for themselves, I’d probably recommend Quizlet, for the simple reason that there’s a very good step-by-step guide to using these cards at Lizzie Pinard’s blog , ‘Reflections of an English Language Teacher’.

Learning vocabulary – the task at the heart of language learning – necessarily entails a lot of memorization, and it makes sense for this to be done, as much as possible, outside the classroom. In fact, it has to be done outside the classroom, as there will simply never be enough time to do it in the classroom. Here is the first big problem. Even when my students, back in the 1990s, were equipped with their sets of cards, and had been instructed how to make the best use of them while sitting on the bus or the train (there were some excellent tips in Stuart Redman et al’s A Way with Words, CUP 1990), the majority just never managed to find the time. Despite all their protestations to the contrary, sufficient motivation was lacking. There is no reason to suppose that things will be any different with word card apps, even with all their gamification and games. It will remain the job of the teacher to push the motivation.

In addition to the central problem of motivation, there are a number of other areas in which digital word cards are no different from their cardboard predecessors. The first of these is that the majority of word cards do not contain enough information. Typically, there is just a translation; possibly a key to the part of speech, an example sentence and access to a recording of the word. There is only very rarely information about collocations, connotations or cultural background. Lexical priming is not going to happen this way! I have learnt, for example, from my Anki cards that die Ansiedlung means ‘location’ or ‘settlement’, but I’m still not too sure how to use the word. Word cards work best for receptive knowledge, for translating from the target language into your own language. They are less useful for learners who want or need to build their productive vocabulary. Learners can be helped by their teachers to produce or edit fuller, more useful cards, but this entails training. Training, in turns, usually entails classroom time.

Time (and motivation) is also needed to prepare the cards. All the digital apps allow lexical sets and ready-made cards to be imported, just as it used to be possible to buy sets of laminated cards and filing boxes. But there are three problems with taking this short-cut. Firstly, the ready-made sets are not usually very good (see the paragraph above), however glossy they may look. Secondly, and more importantly, ready-made sets are highly unlikely to match precisely the needs of individual classes, let alone individual learners. Finally, the effort involved in producing (and subsequently editing) one’s own cards will have a pay-off in long-term memorization. For all of these reasons, digital word card use is likely to be more effective if the teacher addresses these issues in the classroom.

Word cards are also static. Once the card has been prepared with a translation and an example sentence and so on, this tends to remain fixed. The problem here is that learning is strengthened if the learner meets or uses the input again in a way that involves some change to the form and use of the word (Joe, 1998). That is, the new word is put into a slightly different context from the original meeting. This is called ‘generative use’. (Nation, I.S.P. 2008 Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning) p27) Once again, there is useful classroom work that teachers can do to deal with this issue.

Multiple exposure to a vocabulary item through spaced repetition is likely to help the process of that item ending up in the long-term memory. But frequency of repetition (what Patrick Hanks, in his book Lexical Analysis, describes as social salience) is not the end of the story. Long term memorization is more likely to take place when there is what Hanks calls cognitive salience … and this is much more likely when the item is embedded and encountered in some sort of memorable (e.g. weird) context. Teachers can encourage their students to illustrate target items in cognitively salient ways, and they can also exploit the dynamics of the classroom environment to the same effect.

fluent_in_three_monthsDespite the claims of word card enthusiasts like ‘Benny the Irish polygot’ blogger of Fluent in 3 Months , no one is going to learn a language just by using this kind of software. It should not be assumed that learning from word lists or word cards means that the words are learned forever, nor does it mean that all knowledge of a word has been learned, even though word cards can be designed to include a wide range of information about a word (Schmitt and Schmitt, 1995). Learning from lists or word cards is only an initial stage of learning a particular word. It is, however, a learning tool for use at any level of language proficiency. (Nation, P. & Waring, R. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’ in Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds) 1997 Vocabulary (Cambridge University Press) ppp.12 – 13)

In order to be able to use the words of a target language, confidently and fluently, learners will need opportunities to use them, meaningfully and communicatively. They will also benefit from feedback on how they are using them. Gamified gap-fills and matching tasks, score cards and progress charts cannot do this. Word card apps are a valuable tool for language learners, and can be very usefully exploited in blended contexts. If (and it’s a big ‘if’) students can be motivated to do this kind of self-study, classroom time can be freed up to spend on meaning-focused language practice and learning strategy training. In the second part of this post, I’ll be looking at specific, practical examples of what teachers can do in the classroom.

The drive towards adaptive learning is being fuelled less by individual learners or teachers than it is by commercial interests, large educational institutions and even larger agencies, including national governments. How one feels about adaptive learning is likely to be shaped by one’s beliefs about how education should be managed.

Huge amounts of money are at stake. Education is ‘a global marketplace that is estimated conservatively to be worth in excess of $5 trillion per annum’ (Selwyn, Distrusting Educational Technology 2013, p.2). With an eye on this pot, in one year, 2012, ‘venture capital funds, private equity investors and transnational corporations like Pearson poured over $1.1 billion into education technology companies’[1] Knewton, just one of a number of adaptive learning companies, managed to raise $54 million before it signed multi-million dollar contracts with ELT publishers like Macmillan and Cambridge University Press. In ELT, some publishing companies are preferring to sit back and wait to see what happens. Most, however, have their sights firmly set on the earnings potential and are fully aware that late-starters may never be able to catch up with the pace-setters.

The nexus of vested interests that is driving the move towards adaptive learning is both tight and complicated. Fuller accounts of this can be found in Stephen Ball’s ‘Education Inc.’ (2012) and Joel Spring’s ‘Education Networks’ (2012) but for this post I hope that a few examples will suffice.

Leading the way is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private foundation with endowments of almost $40 billion. One of its activities is the ‘Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program’ which seeks to promote adaptive learning and claims that the adaptive learning loop can defeat the iron triangle of costs, quality and access (referred to in The Selling Points of Adaptive Learning, above). It is worth noting that this foundation has also funded Teach Plus, an organisation that has been lobbying US ‘state legislatures to eliminate protection of senior teachers during layoffs’ (Spring, 2012, p.51). It also supports the Foundation for Excellence in Education, ‘a major advocacy group for expanding online instruction by changing state laws’ (ibid., p.51). The chairman of this foundation is Jeb Bush, brother of ex-president Bush, who took the message of his foundation’s ‘Digital Learning Now!’ program on the road in 2011. The message, reports Spring (ibid. p.63) was simple: ‘the economic crises provided an opportunity to reduce school budgets by replacing teachers with online courses.’ The Foundation for Excellence in Education is also supported by the Walton Foundation (the Walmart family) and iQity, a company whose website makes clear its reasons for supporting Jeb Bush’s lobbying. ‘The iQity e-Learning Platform is the most complete solution available for the electronic search and delivery of curriculum, courses, and other learning objects. Delivering over one million courses each year, the iQity Platform is a proven success for students, teachers, school administrators, and district offices; as well as state, regional, and national education officials across the country.[2]

Another supporter of the Foundation for Excellence in Education is the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Pearson. The Pearson Foundation, in its turn, is supported by the Gates Foundation. In 2011, the Pearson Foundation received funding from the Gates Foundation to create 24 online courses, four of which would be distributed free and the others sold by Pearson the publishers (Spring, 2012, p.66).

The campaign to promote online adaptive learning is massively funded and extremely well-articulated. It receives support from transnational agencies such as the World Bank, WTO and OECD, and its arguments are firmly rooted in the discourse ‘of international management consultancies and education businesses’ (Ball, 2012, p.11-12). It is in this context that observers like Neil Selwyn connect the growing use of digital technologies in education to the corporatisation and globalisation of education and neo-liberal ideology.

Adaptive learning also holds rich promise for those who can profit from the huge amount of data it will generate. Jose Fereira, CEO of Knewton, acknowledges that adaptive learning has ‘the capacity to produce a tremendous amount of data, more than maybe any other industry’[3]. He continues ‘Big data is going to impact education in a big way. It is inevitable. It has already begun. If you’re part of an education organization, you need to have a vision for how you will take advantage of big data. Wait too long and you’ll wake up to find that your competitors (and the instructors that use them) have left you behind with new capabilities and insights that seem almost magical.’ Rather paradoxically, he then concludes that ‘we must all commit to the principle that the data ultimately belong to the students and the schools’. It is not easy to understand how such data can be both the property of individuals and, at the same time, be used by educational organizations to gain competitive advantage.

The existence and exploitation of this data may also raise concerns about privacy. In the same way that many people do not fully understand the extent or purpose of ‘dataveillance’ by cookies when they are browsing the internet, students cannot be expected to fully grasp the extent or potential commercial use of the data that they generate when engaged in adaptive learning programs.

Selwyn (Distrusting Educational Technology 2013, p.59-60) highlights a further problem connected with the arrival of big data. ‘Dataveillance’, he writes, also ‘functions to decrease the influence of ‘human’ experience and judgement, with it no longer seeming to matter what a teacher may personally know about a student in the face of his or her ‘dashboard’ profile and aggregated tally of positive and negative ‘events’. As such, there would seem to be little room for ‘professional’ expertise or interpersonal emotion when faced with such data. In these terms, institutional technologies could be said to be both dehumanizing and deprofessionalizing the relationships between people in an education context – be they students, teachers, administrators or managers.’

Adaptive learning in online and blended programs may well offer a number of advantages, but these will need to be weighed against the replacement or deskilling of teachers, and the growing control of big business over educational processes and content. Does adaptive learning increase the risk of transforming language teaching into a digital diploma mill (Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The automation of higher education 2002)?


Evgeney Morozov’s 2013 best-seller, ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, takes issue with our current preoccupation with finding technological solutions to complex and contentious problems. If adaptive learning is being presented as a solution, what is the problem that it is the solution of? In Morosov’s analysis, it is not an educational problem. ‘Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems,’ he writes, ‘but those problems don’t include education – not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue’ (Morosov, 2013, p.8). Only if we conceive of education as the transmission of bits of information (and in the case of language education as the transmission of bits of linguistic information), could adaptive learning be seen as some sort of solution to an educational problem. The push towards adaptive learning in ELT can be seen, in Morosov’s terms, as reaching ‘for the answer before the questions have been fully asked’ (ibid., p.6).

The world of education has been particularly susceptible to the dreams of a ‘technical fix’. Its history, writes Neil Selwyn, ‘has been characterised by attempts to use the ‘power’ of technology in order to solve problems that are non-technological in nature. […] This faith in the technical fix is pervasive and relentless – especially in the minds of the key interests and opinion formers of this digital age. As the co-founder of the influential Wired magazine reasoned more recently, ‘tools and technology drive us. Even if a problem has been caused by technology, the answer will always be more technology’ (Selwyn, Education in a Digital World 2013, p.36).

Morosov cautions against solutionism in all fields of human activity, pointing out that, by the time a problem is ‘solved’, it becomes something else entirely. Anyone involved in language teaching would be well-advised to identify and prioritise the problems that matter to them before jumping to the conclusion that adaptive learning is the ‘solution’. Like other technologies, it might, just possibly, ‘reproduce, perpetuate, strengthen and deepen existing patterns of social relations and structures – albeit in different forms and guises. In this respect, then, it is perhaps best to approach educational technology as a ‘problem changer’ rather than a ‘problem solver’ (Selwyn, Education in a Digital World 2013, p.21).

[1] Philip McRae Rebirth of the Teaching Machine through the Seduction of Data Analytics: This time it’s personal April 14, 2013 (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[2] (last accessed 13 January, 2014)

One could be forgiven for thinking that there are no problems associated with adaptive learning in ELT. Type the term into a search engine and you’ll mostly come up with enthusiasm or sales talk. There are, however, a number of reasons to be deeply skeptical about the whole business. In the post after this, I will be considering the political background.

1. Learning theory

Jose Fereira, the CEO of Knewton, spoke, in an interview with Digital Journal[1] in October 2009, about getting down to the ‘granular level’ of learning. He was referencing, in an original turn of phrase, the commonly held belief that learning is centrally concerned with ‘gaining knowledge’, knowledge that can be broken down into very small parts that can be put together again. In this sense, the adaptive learning machine is very similar to the ‘teaching machine’ of B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who believed that learning was a complex process of stimulus and response. But how many applied linguists would agree, firstly, that language can be broken down into atomised parts (rather than viewed as a complex, dynamic system), and, secondly, that these atomised parts can be synthesized in a learning program to reform a complex whole? Human cognitive and linguistic development simply does not work that way, despite the strongly-held contrary views of ‘folk’ theories of learning (Selwyn Education and Technology 2011, p.3).


Furthermore, even if an adaptive system delivers language content in personalized and interesting ways, it is still premised on a view of learning where content is delivered and learners receive it. The actual learning program is not personalized in any meaningful way: it is only the way that it is delivered that responds to the algorithms. This is, again, a view of learning which few educationalists (as opposed to educational leaders) would share. Is language learning ‘simply a technical business of well managed information processing’ or is it ‘a continuing process of ‘participation’ (Selwyn, Education and Technology 2011, p.4)?

Finally, adaptive learning is also premised on the idea that learners have particular learning styles, that these can be identified by the analytics (even if they are not given labels), and that actionable insights can be gained from this analysis (i.e. the software can decide on the most appropriate style of content delivery for an individual learner). Although the idea that teaching programs can be modified to cater to individual learning styles continues to have some currency among language teachers (e.g. those who espouse Neuro-Linguistic Programming or Multiple Intelligences Theory), it is not an idea that has much currency in the research community.

It might be the case that adaptive learning programs will work with some, or even many, learners, but it would be wise to carry out more research (see the section on Research below) before making grand claims about its efficacy. If adaptive learning can be shown to be more effective than other forms of language learning, it will be either because our current theories of language learning are all wrong, or because the learning takes place despite the theory, (and not because of it).

2. Practical problems

However good technological innovations may sound, they can only be as good, in practice, as the way they are implemented. Language laboratories and interactive whiteboards both sounded like very good ideas at the time, but they both fell out of favour long before they were technologically superseded. The reasons are many, but one of the most important is that classroom teachers did not understand sufficiently the potential of these technologies or, more basically, how to use them. Given the much more radical changes that seem to be implied by the adoption of adaptive learning, we would be wise to be cautious. The following is a short, selected list of questions that have not yet been answered.

  • Language teachers often struggle with mixed ability classes. If adaptive programs (as part of a blended program) allow students to progress at their own speed, the range of abilities in face-to-face lessons may be even more marked. How will teachers cope with this? Teacher – student ratios are unlikely to improve!
  • Who will pay for the training that teachers will need to implement effective blended learning and when will this take place?
  • How will teachers respond to a technology that will be perceived by some as a threat to their jobs and their professionalism and as part of a growing trend towards the accommodation of commercial interests (see the next post)?
  • How will students respond to online (adaptive) learning when it becomes the norm, rather than something ‘different’?

3 Research

Technological innovations in education are rarely, if ever, driven by solidly grounded research, but they are invariably accompanied by grand claims about their potential. Motion pictures, radio, television and early computers were all seen, in their time, as wonder technologies that would revolutionize education (Cuban, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 1986). Early research seemed to support the claims, but the passage of time has demonstrated all too clearly the precise opposite. The arrival on the scene of e-learning in general, and adaptive learning in particular, has also been accompanied by much cheer-leading and claims of research support.

Examples of such claims of research support for adaptive learning in higher education in the US and Australia include an increase in pass rates of between 7 and 18%, a decrease of between 14 and 47% in student drop-outs, and an acceleration of 25% in the time needed to complete courses[2]. However, research of this kind needs to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. First of all, the research has usually been commissioned, and sometimes carried out, by those with vested commercial interests in positive results. Secondly, the design of the research study usually guarantees positive results. Finally, the results cannot be interpreted to have any significance beyond their immediate local context. There is no reason to expect that what happened in a particular study into adaptive learning in, say, the University of Arizona would be replicated in, say, the Universities of Amman, Astana or anywhere else. Very often, when this research is reported, the subject of the students’ study is not even mentioned, as if this were of no significance.

The lack of serious research into the effectiveness of adaptive learning does not lead us to the conclusion that it is ineffective. It is simply too soon to say, and if the examples of motion pictures, radio and television are any guide, it will be a long time before we have any good evidence. By that time, it is reasonable to assume, adaptive learning will be a very different beast from what it is today. Given the recency of this kind of learning, the lack of research is not surprising. For online learning in general, a meta-analysis commissioned by the US Department of Education (Means et al, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practice in Online Learning 2009, p.9) found that there were only a small number of rigorous published studies, and that it was not possible to attribute any gains in learning outcomes to online or blended learning modes. As the authors of this report were aware, there are too many variables (social, cultural and economic) to compare in any direct way the efficacy of one kind of learning with another. This is as true of attempts to compare adaptive online learning with face-to-face instruction as it is with comparisons of different methodological approaches in purely face-to-face teaching. There is, however, an irony in the fact that advocates of adaptive learning (whose interest in analytics leads them to prioritise correlational relationships over causal ones) should choose to make claims about the causal relationship between learning outcomes and adaptive learning.

Perhaps, as Selwyn (Education and Technology 2011, p.87) suggests, attempts to discover the relative learning advantages of adaptive learning are simply asking the wrong question, not least as there cannot be a single straightforward answer. Perhaps a more useful critique would be to look at the contexts in which the claims for adaptive learning are made, and by whom. Selwyn also suggests that useful insights may be gained from taking a historical perspective. It is worth noting that the technicist claims for adaptive learning (that ‘it works’ or that it is ‘effective’) are essentially the same as those that have been made for other education technologies. They take a universalising position and ignore local contexts, forgetting that ‘pedagogical approach is bound up with a web of cultural assumption’ (Wiske, ‘A new culture of teaching for the 21st century’ in Gordon, D.T. (ed.) The Digital Classroom: How Technology is Changing the Way we teach and Learn 2000, p.72). Adaptive learning might just possibly be different from other technologies, but history advises us to be cautious.

[2] These figures are quoted in Learning to Adapt: A Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education, a booklet produced in March 2013 by Education Growth Advisors, an education consultancy firm. Their research is available at