ELT research

Problems with images in ELT materials

Images in ELT coursebooks are often ambiguous. What might seem a fairly obvious depiction of an act or concept to us may be perceived as something completely different to our learners.

In an interesting, small-scale study, Hewings (1991) asked a group of Vietnamese learners in England to interpret various illustrations found in Elementary level coursebooks. For most of the images correct interpretation would require some culturally-specific knowledge, and written text around the images was removed so the learners weren’t given any support.

Hewings found many types of image were interpreted differently from what was intended. One example was with illustrations portraying people in certain roles, where learners failed to recognise certain stereotypes (e.g. rich/poor). He found, understandably, that culturally-specific job roles (e.g. a priest) were misinterpreted, as were situational images.

Maps like this room plan were also confused…

taken from Hewings (1991)

Some learners thought this was a view of a house from top to bottom rather than a floor plan from above. Symbolic representations like thought bubbles were also misinterpreted, and images like the ones below were seen as something different – the first image being a children’s slide, a reception desk, and ‘information’.

taken from Hewings (1991)

Interpretation of graphs also seemed an issue, particularly dealing with keys.

Hewings made some clear points in conclusion (mostly quotes here):

  • ‘we inevitably see illustrations from a culturally based viewpoint…’
  • We assume that everyone perceives images in the same way
  • ‘We assume that students have the necessary skills to make sense of information presented in the form other than a text’
  • Interpretations are unpredictable
  • Images are a chance to make learners aware of visual representations of a cultural group/target language


The role of research in TEFL

I’ve been thinking about the role of research in TEFL recently. This was prompted by Dr Paula Rebolledo’s closing plenary on Day 2 of the Teaching for Success online conference, titled ‘How could research inform EFL practice?’ You can watch it here. The talk reminded me of a few things I’ve read by Penny Ur, including this Guardian article in which she questions whether research is directly relevant to pedagogical issues.

Here’s a summary of points made in Paula’s plenary (I hope she doesn’t mind this blow by blow account but it was a really engaging talk):

  • According to her poll, most attendees felt that experience informed their decision making above research (and other resources)

poll from talk by Dr. Paula Rebolledo

  • Research is often inaccessible to teachers (i.e. restricted access journals, costly, etc)
  • A lot of research is incomprehensible – it’s full of jargon and there are different discourses used among researchers and academics compared with teachers
  • Research findings aren’t always relevant to teachers (mentioned by Ur and others)
  • Teachers have different routes to research – engagement WITH research (i.e. reading it) or engagement IN research (doing it). NB: on the latter point – big up our Quircle!
  • Some authors (e.g. Ellis, Ur) have suggested that ‘mediators’ may be useful in helping teachers access, understand and facilitate teacher engagement in research
  • Huw Jarvis did a bit of self-promo in the chat box saying he was such a mediator. His site looks interesting
  • There could be a power imbalance between teachers and researchers. Teachers are seen as being on the receiving end of knowledge. We should rethink this. Perhaps researchers need to better understand teaching, as many may have been out of the classroom for a long time and more used to observing
  • Teachers may benefit from undertaking research or working with researchers in many ways, like these:

slide from the talk by Dr Paula Rebolledo

  • The idea of ‘teacher as researcher’ needs to be a ‘bottom up, teacher-led enterprise
  • There are practical issues for teachers engaging in research – lack of time, the need for support from schools and society as a whole, etc.