Podcast: What Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Language Teaching

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We speak with Carol Lethaby about what neuroscience can do for language teaching. We know more about how the brain works and how learning occurs than ever before, so why does so little of it get used?


Carol is an English language teacher, teacher trainer, ELT consultant and author who has coauthored Just Right Second Edition (Cengage Learning) and English ID (Richmond Publishing) as well as articles on Neuroscience in IATEFL Voices and Neuromyths in the Teacher Trainer Journal.

Transcript: What Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Language Teaching? (with Carol Lethaby)

Tracy:  Hello everyone. Welcome back.

Ross Thorburn:  Today, we've got a special guest on our podcast. That person is Carol Lethaby.

Tracy:  Carol is an English teacher, trainer, author, and a ELT consultant. She has spent a lot of time in Mexico and in Greece. You probably have noticed her name in our ITEFL podcast.

Ross:  Both 2018 and 2017. Today, we are going to speak to Carol about what neuroscience can do for language teaching. As usual, we've got three broad areas that we're going to speak to Carol about. The first area we are going to look at is what myths about language teaching are there.

Tracy:  The second main area is what teachers can apply from research and neuroscience, and the last one...

Ross:  ...is why findings from research often don't get applied in language teaching.


Myths about language teaching

Ross:  Hi Carol. Thanks so much for taking the time to come on the podcast.

Carol:  Hi Ross.

Ross:  How are you doing?

Carol:  Well. Thank you.

Ross:  Carol, do you want to start off by telling us about some common myths that exist about language learning?

Carol:  The first one is we only use 10 percent of our brain, which gets perpetuated so much in the popular media. Then, of course, there's the idea that you're right brain or left brain dominant, again, something which neuroscientists grimace every time someone says that.

The idea that accommodating learning styles will create learning and the idea that we can ignore learner's first language when they're learning a new language.

Tracy:  It's really interesting. How did this myth change what teachers do in the classroom?

Carol:  Yes. That's what's really important for us as teachers. The first thing is the idea of left brain, right brain. You are either analytic or you're creative. People taking this into consideration and saying, "Oh well, there's nothing you can do about it."

When really they're denying the role that education plays, your preferences, the same with learning styles. We identify them. We have these formal and informal assessments.

We try to teach to the preferred learning styles to enhance in learning. We teach people on initial and in‑service training courses that is of utmost importance when there's absolutely no evidence that it helps.

I think there it's more like wasting time, money, resources on things that don't work. Then with the English‑only idea, the idea that the L one shouldn't play a part in second language learning. I'd just been working with a group of teachers last week.

I was talking about different ways that the first language can help us learning a second language or another language and the reaction from some of the teachers I could still see there the [inaudible 03:17] and the kind of disbelief. This idea, I think, is pretty firmly entrenched in many places.

Ross:  Is it almost like we could put that research into two categories then? Research that shows that what we're doing at the moment is wrong, or doesn't work, or isn't as effective as it could be. Then research that might show why things like common practices that teachers do now do work perfect.

Carol:  Yes, I think that's a good way to think about how neuroscience can help us. One of the things that it can help us to do is to think about things that our intuitions might tell us are true, but which evidence tells us are not true. It can also the other way around, as you've just mentioned, show us something that we do do in the classroom is actually a good idea.

The big one here for me is taking into consideration prior knowledge. This is something that studies of the brain and looking at MRIs. There is something going on physically in the brain when we are learning about something we already know something about.

The part of the brain where old information and new information connect is a part that has been identified. We have to say, at the same time, we do have to think too about how can we actually apply these ideas both from neuroscience and from evidence‑based teaching practice. How can we apply this to English language teacher?

A lot of the studies that have been done have been done in the area of math teaching or content teaching. Language teaching is a little bit different in terms of the language itself being the content.

Ross:  Another theory like this that we've mentioned before on this podcast and one that I've also heard you mentioned before, is cognitive load. I always find the easiest way to visualize this is to think of the brain as being like a smartphone or a computer.

The idea is that if your phone or your computer, you've got a lot of apps running at the same time, then the computer runs much more slowly. If you only have one app running at once, then it runs faster.

This is similar to the brain that if you give students, for example, a task that includes a lot of higher order thinking skills and a lot of speaking, students are going to speak a lot more slowly.

In other words, it's like a language app on their brain's going to be running a lot more slowly because of the increased processing power that they need to do that higher order thinking. Do you want to tell us a bit more about cognitive load and some of the things that you've spoken about with that before?

Carol:  Yes, that's it in a nutshell, but that's a nice little analogy with apps, etc. In language learning, we started looking at it related to the idea of overloading learners in terms of their different senses. People thinking, we're going to present this piece of language. You have to listen to it, you have to read it, and you have to look at pictures all at the same time.

That, in actual fact, you think you're helping the learner, but in fact, you're making it harder for the learner because, maybe, the visuals don't support the text in some way. When are we overloading the learners?

How could we avoid overloading the learners? By doing the opposite. Actually, help them using visuals that support their learning rather than actually overload the learner.


What teachers can apply from research and neuroscience

Tracy:  We talk about teaching. We talk about neuroscience. Do you want to tell us some researching findings that from neuroscience, for example, the teachers can apply in their classes to make them more effective or, maybe, something that teachers commonly do in the classroom that neuroscience has shown benefits teaching or learning?

Carol:  Well, obviously, the first example is going back to the mother tongue again, using what you already know about your first language and what you already know about your second language to help you to learn new things. I'm thinking too of things, like practice testing. Just say, a quick vocabulary test after you have learned some vocabulary.

Just the idea that practicing retrieving things from your memory actually strengthens those connections that you have and makes it easier to be able to do it in the future. It's just things like this that we're doing in the classroom, recycling material. We say we're recycling, but why are we doing that?

Well, because it's going to help learners to actually learn new things if you remind them of what they know already. Then you add something new to it, doing pre‑tasks before we do reading or listening.

That's a reason for doing that. You help learners to remember what they know already about the topic. In the case of the beginner learners, you're probably going to have to do more work for actual making up for their comprehension gap.

Ross:  You mentioned distributed practice there, which is something that we've also spoken about before in the podcast. Maybe, the easiest way to think about distributed practices, it's the opposite of cramming, which I think is something that we all know doesn't work very well.

In the long‑term it might work OK if you've got an exam tomorrow, but it's not going to help you very much in the long‑term. Can you tell us a bit more about why distributed practice helps students remember things better?

Carol:  Yes, so most evidence‑based studies they call that distributed practice, but the idea of not cramming everything all at once to try and learn it, but the idea of spacing it. You start it on one day. Then you come back to it at another time. Every time you come back to it, you're adding something new so it becomes a cumulative process.

Then it's really helping you, hopefully, with your neuroconnections. We could say that, doing some distributed practice with me. First of all, we do some work on a particular grammar and function structure. Say, we're working with simple past tense. We may say one day, we're going to learn some words to talk about the past.

Maybe, we often do it first with the regular verbs, etc. We don't say, "Here are all the irregular verbs to learn all in one go." We say, "Next time we return to this." In the meantime, we do some other stuff.

We're into leaving our practice. Perhaps, we go back and do some more vocabulary on a particular theme, for example. Then in the next class we come back to learning some verbs again, and perhaps work on more irregular verbs, learning more of them, again, in a theme, but relating them to what we did the day before.

Ross:  Obviously, with this podcast we're trying to get teachers to learn more about learning strategies and neuroscience. Do you think that teachers also have a responsibility to tell students about what learning strategies work?

Carol:  That's a great question. It's helpful to tell students why you're doing the things that you do. The idea of practice when students complain that. "Oh, we've already seen this and we practiced it." Well, why do we practice things again and again and again? Because we know that that helps you to learn it.

Tracy:  Can we also use them with young learners?

Ross:  Or is it something that works for adults?

Carol:  That's a good question. In terms of the cognitive strategies, that's something that needs to be dosified a little bit, depending on the cognitive level of the learner.

It's very hard to talk about cognitive strategy, like making a conclusion from patterns if you don't have the cognitive abilities yet to be able to do that. That's going to depend on age, but there are some things definitely we can start working on with young children.


Why findings from research often don't get applied in language teaching

Ross:  We've spoken a little about neuromyths, Carol. Why do you think it is that the neuromyths that you mentioned at the beginning of the show, things like, we only use a small percentage of our brain power, left brain, right brain learning‑selves. Why do these things still persist? Why is it people still believe in these? Why do they still get taught on teacher training courses?

Carol:  That's a good question. There are a few reasons. One of them is that going back to the women's and men's brains, for example, there's so much over reporting of studies that purport to find differences when the majority of studies actually don't find any differences, but those studies aren't reported. Why not? Because nobody's interested in them.

In terms of learning styles right brain left brain, people love that stuff in the popular media, don't they? It's like you love to read a little quiz. Are you like this, or are you like this? It's very hard when that is passed on in the popular media as truth.

Secondly, I think that's related to this, that a lot of the evidence for those things. The reality is a lot of it's hidden in a neuroscientific journals, for example. It's quite hard for us to access it unless there's someone helping us to read it and make sense of it and say, "Well, what this really says is this."

Then the third reason, some neuromyths or ideas about the brain are actually untestable because they're black box theories, if you like. The multiple intelligences theory, for example. You can't test that because it's not something that we can look at if you like. It's a black box theory.

It's a combination of those things. Probably the main one in language teaching is the idea that the myths are often not challenged.

Tracy:  A lot of teachers, including myself, just felt they're a lot of things going on in terms of research about learning from neuroscience. How can we make sure that we keep up‑to‑date? You just pointed out actually articles in a lot of popular media is probably quite unreliable. What can we do as teachers?

Carol:  Another good question. Something that I find very helpful is trying to find blogs by neuroscientists, who, in the blog, they will often explain themselves in normal person's language that we can understand.

If you read the blog first, then you can go back to the actual study and make sense of it much more. I like Daniel Willingham's blog. He talks about, particularly, education and evidence based on ideas and education.

More from Carol Lethaby

Ross:  Carol, for any listeners that want to visit your website or learn more about your work and what you do, your website is www.clethaby.com That's C‑L‑E‑T‑H‑A‑B‑Y.com. Is that right?

Carol Lethaby:  Yeah. That's my website.

Tracy:  Really nice talking to you today.

Ross:  Thanks again, Carol.

Carol:  Thank you to you. It's been so nice to meet you and talk to you.

Links, etc.

Daniel Willingham’s Science & Education Blog (as mentioned by Carol)

Carol's website