Interview with Rod Ellis

Answers on the line between research and practice, and task-based teaching

Rod Ellis is an author, educator, and researcher who has taught all around the world, in his homeland of England, Zambia, the U.S., China, Spain, and Japan. Ellis has authored more than 30 books and has been involved in language acquisition in many cultural contexts. Today, he is deputy head of the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and professor and chair of the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University in California. Language Magazine caught up with Dr. Ellis while he was visiting Los Angeles.

LM: You have experience as a teacher and also as a researcher and have written extensively on the divide between second language acquisition research and teaching practice. How did you transition into a researcher role?

RE: Actually, I’m one of the few people that has been a teacher at all levels of education. And gradually my career has moved me from direct language teaching to being more of a researcher, more of a teacher educator. I think that experience is very important because a lot of the things that I research and the way in which I interpret research is based very much on my experience as a language teacher. For example, working in Zambia it became quite clear that students need more than just classroom contact in order to become successful language learners. They need extensive contact with the language, and given that they weren’t going to get that at the dormitories because they were talking in their vernacular languages, it was clear that they needed an extensive reading program. So, one of the things that I have always promoted is extensive reading programs, and I have looked at the research on extensive reading programs, in particular the research done by Stephen Krashen. But the actual motive for it comes from my own experiences as a language teacher.

LM: How do you think that language teachers can use and add to research?

RE: It’s true that by and large, teachers are positioned as people who are consumers of research rather than producers of research. There are types of research that have been designed specifically for teachers and can make teachers producers of research. Two types of research in particular are being promoted — action research, which is based on the idea that the students identify some kind of problem with their teaching, work out a way of solving that problem, and then proceed to collect data to see to what extent the solution is actually effective. The other way is through what Dick Allwright has called exploratory practice. He argues that action research is not practical for most teachers because they don’t have time to do it. So, he argues that instead of looking at a problem, they should perhaps look at a puzzle. His idea of exploratory practice is where teachers work with students to try to understand something that is a puzzle to them. I’m not altogether certain if the idea of a problem and a puzzle is that different, but I think that what Allwright is interested in is not teachers carrying out research on their teaching and their learners, but rather teachers building into their teaching ways of addressing particular problems, or particular puzzles. An example of a puzzle is “Why would I put my students into groups? They just spend a lot of time talking in their first language instead of English.” So, exploratory practice would proceed to try not to solve it, but to understand it, and to get students to understand why they’re doing it, and the teacher to understand why they’re doing it. It doesn’t involve intensive data collection. It involves, rather, dealing with something that is a pedagogical issue, like the use of the first language in group work. I think that these are the ways through which teachers can become researchers and can contribute to research. There are of course problems, because most of the major journals don’t publish action research. However, I edit a journal called Language Teaching Research, which has a section called “Practitioner Research” and does publish research that is carried out by teachers inside their own classroom. These articles get cited and so contribute to ongoing research. Thus, to some extent at least, I think it is possible for teachers to do research, get it published, and, therefore, contribute to the canon of research in a particular area.

LM: How can researchers angle their work to be more relevant to teachers in the classroom?

RE: I think there are really two ways in which they can do that and you have to achieve both in order to make it more relevant and accessible to teachers. The first way is to choose questions that are important to teachers. I don’t think researchers always do that because research is often driven by some theory; say a theory of second language learning. This leads researchers to investigate some hypothesis based on that theory rather than to investigate the kinds of questions that teachers would perhaps think important. I have always noted in my own teacher education work that when you ask students to try to plan a research study, they have a lot of problems writing their questions because they tend to write questions that are important to them, but are not very easily researchable. What makes a question researchable is whether you can operationalize the constructs it addresses and thus collect data to try to answer it. So, if you have a very broad question like, “What can I do to get my learners to avoid making this kind of mistake?” that’s probably not a very good question because it’s not easy to see how you can design a study to actually do that. Researchers formulate questions that are researchable, but that are often viewed as trivial or insignificant by teachers. So I think there is a major problem. But there are areas that you can form questions about that are of significance to teachers and of interest to researchers. One obvious question might be “What factors influence students’ readiness to participate actively in a classroom?” This is a question that would interest researchers and teachers alike. So, that’s the first thing to do — to try to form questions that are of interest and relevant to teachers, but that are also researchable. The second way you make research relevant to teachers is by making it accessible. I would have to admit that I know quite a lot of researchers who are excellent researchers, but don’t know how to make it accessible to teachers.

LM: Do you mean accessible in how it’s written, the language?

RE: Precisely. Researchers often use highly technical language and complicated statistics, which are not going to be readily understood by teachers. Maybe researchers who are interested in language teaching and teacher education have to be prepared to write at different levels. Sometimes they’re going to write in a very academic way for their fellow researchers, but at other times they’re going to need to be able to write in a more accessible way — simplifying and making things accessible for teachers but without dumbing down. So to answer your question, “How can you make research more accessible to teachers?” One, is by addressing questions that they are going to consider relevant and, two, is by being prepared to make your research accessible in the way in which it’s written so that teachers can read it and get something from it.

LM: Do you think that something that hinders researchers in that sense is the nature of the profession? As a researcher, you want to be publishing in the best journals, or the most respected journals, and they are expected to write and to present their work in a way that is not accessible to everyone.

RE: Yes, because if you work in a university, the number of brownie points you get for writing an article depends on the quality of the journal in which you’ve published. Journals are ranked, and when we list our research we not only list the name of the article and where it was published, but we’re asked to give an indication of the status of the journal. One way that this is often done is through impact factor. All journals have impact factors and you indicate what the impact factor is. If you’re publishing in a journal with an impact factor of 1.5 then you’re going to do a lot better than if you’re publishing in a journal with no impact factor, or with a very low impact factor.

LM: Is that changing in linguistics at all with the internet and Google Scholar now that academics are publishing online, or blogging about their research?

RE: A lot of researchers do publish online, and there’s an enormous number of online avenues for promoting your research, including, for example, YouTube. Another way that researchers can make their research accessible is through conference talks, attended by teachers. I go to a lot of conferences and I give a lot of talks to teachers, and I don’t talk in the same way that I would talk if I go to, say, the American Association of Applied Linguistics conference. I’m dealing with very similar ideas very often, but I’m trying to explain them in a different way to show how they are relevant to language teaching. Yes, there are a lot of online publications and I mentioned YouTube. Another way to make research accessible is through this kind of interview, and to me that’s important. Yes, I function as a theoretical researcher and I publish in good journals, but that’s never enough. I started off as a language teacher. The reason I got into all this research was because I did have issues as a language teacher, in particular the relationship between teaching and language acquisition. Why don’t people learn what you sometimes teach them? That’s my starting point. So I never really lost my concern for language teaching.

LM: In your work you’ve given numerous examples of where approaches fail and that this failure exposes a gap in the way in which languages are taught and the way in which they’re learned.

RE: Yes, I find that one of the most problematic things in language teaching is that so much language teaching is geared to a structural syllabus. A structural syllabus is a list of grammar points, or words, or sounds to be taught. It’s a linear syllabus and the idea is that you teach learners one point at a time and they learn it, so it views learning as a kind of incremental item-based process. But we know very well that language acquisition does not proceed in a linear fashion — it’s not building a wall brick-by-brick. It’s a much more organic process, much more dynamic, much more gradual. I don’t really see how a structural syllabus is really compatible with the way in which learners learn and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve argued in favor of task-based language learning. Another issue I’ve addressed is how to teach complete beginners. There seems to be an assumption that the way to teach such learners is by getting them to produce language. This doesn’t make sense to me because we know that the way in which learning begins is through comprehending input, building up knowledge of language, and then gradually moving towards production. Krashen always argued that language learning was input-driven, comprehensible input, and played down the role of speaking. I think speaking does have a role, but I think Krashen was right about the beginning stages of learning. If people are exposed to language they can understand and gradually internalize it. Thus, one of the things I’d be very interested in is comprehension-based language teaching, or the importance of input-based in task-based teaching for beginning level learners. If you go and look at the books that are written for complete beginners, they tend to emphasize production, and the production is inevitably very mechanical. You know, “repeat after me.” That doesn’t seem to be compatible with the aim of developing the actual ability to use what you learn in communication. So two areas that I have been critical of in language pedagogy from a second language acquisition perspective are the reliance on a structural syllabus, and, where beginners are concerned, the reliance on production-based methods as opposed to input-based activities.

LM: What are some of the most common misconceptions about task-based teaching?

RE: There are many. I’ll give you three. The first misconception is task-based teaching necessarily involves putting students into groups to do oral production tasks in groups. Many teachers seem to have this view of task-based teaching and to a certain extent, it comes from the fact that researchers and teacher educators tend to always talk about oral production tasks performed in groups; information gap tasks and opinion gap tasks. But tasks don’t have to be done in groups. Tasks can be done with the whole class where the teacher takes one role and the students the other. So if it’s an information gap task, the teacher may have one set of information, the students another. They have a goal to achieve. They communicate together in order to achieve it. It can be done in a whole class environment. I’ve sometimes demonstrated task-based teaching in a very large class, sometimes 60 or 70, where it might be very difficult to organize pair work or group work. So that’s one misconception. The second is that tasks necessarily involve production — there are also input-based tasks. I’ve just had a Ph.D. student investigate input-based tasks with very young, beginner Japanese children. She showed that the children learned better from the input-based tasks than from traditional practice-present-produce (PPP) activities. An important point about input-based tasks is that they don’t require students to produce only to understand the input, but they don’t prohibit production. My student found that the children did speak when performing the input-based tasks with her — but in a very different way to how they spoke in the PPP lessons. The other major point is that some people believe that task- based teaching does not involve any grammar work. This is completely false. It can involve grammar work in a number of ways. One way is through the teacher providing corrective feedback when learners are doing a production task. So if they say something that contains an error, the teacher can correct it quickly, in a communicative way. Corrective feedback is a type of grammar teaching. That’s one way, and the other major way is through a post-task activity. If the teacher notices that her students have a problem with a particular grammatical structure, then she can resort to a more traditional way of teaching that particular grammatical structure. Grammar has quite a major role in task-based language teaching.

LM: You have a new book out this year. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

RE: This book is called Language Teaching Research and Language Pedagogy, and it really is only just that. It’s published by Wiley-Blackwell. It aims to do what most of my books aim to do — to review a wide body of research, but in a way that will make it accessible to teachers, to students doing M.A. and Ed.D. courses. It covers topics like the discourse of a language classroom, the teacher’s role in the classroom, the learner’s role in the classroom, tasks come into it, form focused instruction comes into it, individual differences come into it. It’s a survey book.

LM: What role do you see technology having in language learning?

RE: I think technology obviously can play a role in direct language learning, but I’m not very familiar with its use there. I’m much more familiar with its use in teacher education, and, of course, one of the main ways that technology can contribute to teacher education is through the growing number of web-based teacher education programs, such as the programs offered through Anaheim University, that I’ve been teaching on now for 13 years. I think we’re going to find more and more students elect to take web-based teacher education programs at some kind of level that is appropriate to their own professional development.

Language Teaching Research and Language Pedagogy by Rod Ellis (ISBN: 978-1-4443-3611-5) was published in March 2012 by Wiley-Blackwell.