Online support for classroom language teachers: research summary

My general interest in improving language learning opportunities in state school settings has led me to research different dimensions of classroom contexts, including the use of technology and teacher development. There is an overlap between these research interests and my professional responsibilities in university Masters in Teaching programmes and my involvement in collaborative teacher education projects.

IMG_0018I have been involved in teacher education with

  • MA courses FL teaching, research and ICT for pre-service secondary EFL teachers in France;
  • MA courses in ICT for pre-service secondary language teachers (German, Italian, Spanish) in France;
  • FL teaching and IWB-mediated teaching in-service language teachers and teacher trainers (local courses and invited workshops);
  • informal EFL and ICT teacher professional development in institutional and independent projects.


We’ve tried a number of different free tools to allow teachers to test out ways of identifying and sharing teaching resources, communicating with one another in group projects, and learning to use tools which may be appropriate for direct use by their learners.

  • Google+ circle (Whyte, in press; Whyte & Alexander, 2013)
  • curation sites (Whyte, 2012)
  • social networks (Facebook, Twitter; Whyte, 2014a, 2012)
  • Google sites (Whyte, 2014a, 2012)
  • Weebly (Whyte, 2014b)
  • Google drive (in preparation)


We’ve also experimented with a number of types of activities for professional development, including:

  • video diaries (Whyte, in press; Whyte & Alexander, 2013, 2014)
  • teaching resource websites (Whyte 2012, 2014b)
  • CALL task design (Whyte, 2014a, 2014b).


These projects have shown some of the following results:

  • even inexperienced teachers with little class contact can benefit from collaborative teacher education initiatives with technologies;
  • professional development with technologies takes time and effort:  “slow-burner” approaches seem to have greater chances of success;
  • the integration of technologies in language teaching practice involves a number of different dimensions, including
    • a practical/technical dimension
    • a pedagogical dimension
    • a reflective dimension
  • collaborative action research involving academics and practitioners work best with teachers who have
    • already advanced in practical/technical and pedagogical terms
    • defined specific professional objectives (independent professional development agendas).

Current projects

  • videoconferencing in English as a lingua franca (France-Germany)
  • pre-service EFL teacher telecollaboration on task design (France-Netherlands)
  • peer collaboration on task design with pre-service EFL teachers (Whyte, 2015)
  • iTILT 2: interactive teaching in languages with technology (Erasmus Plus, 2015-7).


Whyte, S. (2015). Taking to task(s): Exploring task design by novice language teachers in technology-mediated and non-technological activities. XVII International CALL research conference. Tarragona, Spain, 4-6 July 2015.

Whyte, S. (in press). Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching: The Case of Interactive Whiteboards for EFL in French Schools. New Language Learning and Teaching Environments. (Series editor: Hayo Reinders). Palgrave Macmillan. April 2015.

Whyte, S. (2014a). Bridging gaps : Using social media to develop techno-pedagogical competences in pre-service language teacher education. Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité – Cahiers de l’APLIUT, 33(2):143-169.

Whyte, S. (2014b). Course design for pre-service secondary school teachers: collaboration and reflection in a short, multilingual CALL course. Teacher Education SIG symposium, EuroCALL, Groningen. slides

Whyte, S. (2013). Teaching English for Specific Purposes: A task-based framework for French graduate courses.  Asp 63 (9), 5-30. DOI : 10.4000/asp.3280

Whyte, S. (2012). Curation and social networking for pre-service language teacher development. EuroCALL Teacher Education SIG Symposium – Pecha Kucha, Gothenburg, Sweden, 22-25 August 2012. slides

Whyte, S., & Alexander, J. (2014). Implementing tasks with interactive technologies in classroom CALL: towards a developmental framework. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 40 (1), 1-26. PDF

Whyte, S., & Alexander, J. (2013). Learning to Use Interactive Technologies for Language Teaching: Video Diaries for Teacher Support in the iTILT Project. Atelier didactique SAES, Dijon, 18 mai. slides

Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., van Hazebrouck, S., & Oberhofer, M. (2013). Open educational resources for CALL teacher education: the iTILT interactive whiteboard project.  Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27 (2), 122-148 doi: 10.1080/09588221.2013.818558

Taking to task(s): Task design and CALL

Taking to task(s): Exploring task design by novice language teachers in technology-mediated and non-technological activities

XVII International CALL research conference. Tarragona, Spain, 6-8 July 2015.

This paper examines language teaching and learning activities in EFL classes in the French secondary school context with the aim of understanding factors affecting the design and implementation of such tasks. Participants are pre-service teachers in a university Masters in Teaching English programme with a practical component involving classroom observation and teaching. These student teachers designed communicative activities following a common design brief which leaves the technological component open (Samuda, 2005). Data include teaching materials and activity descriptions, reflective writing, questionnaire data, semi-structured individual and group interviews, and practitioner analysis of learner language. Analysis combines coding of the resulting tasks (Erlam, 2015) with qualitative analysis of questionnaire, interview and reflective writing data. Results suggest wide variation in proposed teaching and learning activities, in the design process, and in reflection on classroom implementation in both technology-mediated and non-technological tasks.

Task design & language learning and teaching

The design of language teaching and learning activities as defined broadly with the terms “task” and “exercise” in the theme of the conference has recently emerged as an important issue in second language teaching research. Viewed as an element of materials development alongside implementation, evaluation, and analysis of materials (Tomlinson, 2012), task design has long been considered a practical activity which is “still largely a practitioner-led practice, not always informed by theories of learning” (Reinders & White, 2010). Task-based and task-oriented teaching have however begun to attract increasing research interest both in technology-mediated contexts (Doughty & Long, 2003; Thomas & Reinders, 2010; Van den Branden et al., 2007) and in non-technological environments (Bygate et al., 2001; Ellis, 2003, 2009; Johnson, 2003; Samuda, 2005).  Indeed, pedagogy and design, as opposed to the integration of technologies per se, have recently been identified by leading CALL figures as both current areas of interest and priorities for ongoing research in our field (Colpaert, 2013; Levy et al., 2015). The academic study of task design offers the chance to improve our understanding of language learning opportunities in the (physical and virtual) language classroom and our models of professional development for language teachers.

Practitioner involvement via action research (Burns, 2005), for instance, or teacher engagement with research more generally, can contribute both to this research enterprise directly and to continuing teacher development.  In recent reviews of research in this area, Borg (2010, 2013) highlights the role of teacher research engagement in helping teachers reflect on their planning and decision-making processes, and thus in promoting “new ways of thinking.” Research in task planning has examined one aspect of this process using think-aloud protocols to study communicative activities developed by expert practitioners and materials writers using the same prompt or “design brief” (Johnson, 2003; Samuda, 2005).  These researchers call for further work to include both more diverse contexts (beyond the commonly studied university or private adult ESL class) and data on the actual implementation of the tasks designed by participants.

The present study seeks to address this gap in the literature by investigating task design and implementation in state school settings and by looking at new teachers rather than expert task designers.  It constitutes a partial replication of the Johnson and Samuda studies to investigate how novice EFL teachers design and implement tasks with their learners and the technological opportunities and constraints of their own classrooms.  By avoiding a specific focus on technology in the design brief, data can be collected on both technological and non-technological tasks and information gathered on the impact of technological considerations on the task design process. In this way, the study sheds light on how new teachers take to tasks in the process of becoming ELT professionals.

Baralt, M., Gilabert, R. & Robinson, P. (2014) (Eds.), Task Sequencing and Instructed Second Language Learning, (pp. 1-34). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Bonnet, G. (2007). The CEFR and education policies in Europe. The Modern Language Journal, 91(4), 669-672.

Borg, S. (2013). Teacher research in language teaching: A critical analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Borg, S. (2010). Language teacher research engagement. Language Teacher, 43(4), 391–429.

Breen, M. P. (1987). Learner contributions to task design. In C. N. Candlin, & D. Murphy (Eds.), Language learning tasks. Lancaster Practical Papers in English Language Education, Vol. 7 (pp. 23-46). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall International.

Breen, M. P., Hird, B., Milton, M., Oliver, R., & Thwaite, A. (2001). Making sense of language teaching: Teachers’ principles and classroom practices. Applied linguistics, 22(4), 470-501.

Burns, A. (2005). Action research: An evolving paradigm? Language Teaching, 38(2), 57–74.

Butler, Y. G. (2011). The implementation of communicative and task-based language teaching in the Asia-Pacific region. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 36-57.

Bygate, M., Skehan, P and Swain, M. (Eds.) (2001). Researching pedagogical tasks: second language learning, teaching, and assessment. London: Pearson.

Byrnes, H. (2007). Perspectives. The Modern Language Journal, 91(4), 641-5.

Carless, D. (2009). Revisiting the TBLT versus PPP debate: Voices from Hong Kong. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 19(1), 49-66.

Colpaert, J. (2013). Sustainability and research challenges in CALL. WorldCALL Glasgow.

Cutrim Schmid, E. & Whyte, S. (2012). Interactive Whiteboards in School Settings: Teacher Responses to Socio-constructivist Hegemonies.  Language Learning and Technology 16 (2), 65-86.

Doughty, C., & Long. M.(2003). Optimal psycholinguistic environments for distance foreign language learning. Language Learning and Technology, 7(3), 50-75.

Ellis, R. (2009). Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19(3), 221-246.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Erlam, R. (2015). ‘I’m still not sure what a task is’: Teachers designing language tasks. Language Teaching Research.

Erlam, R. (2013). Listing and comparing tasks in the language classroom: Examples of Willis and Willis’s (2007) taxonomy in practice. The New Zealand Language Teacher, 39,7-14.

Gurzynski-Weiss, L. (2015). Spanish instructors’ operationalisation of task complexity and task sequencing in foreign language lessons. The Language Learning Journal, (ahead-of-print), 1-20.

Johnson, K. (2003). Designing Language Teaching Tasks. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Krahnke, K. (1987). Approaches to Syllabus Design for Foreign Language Teaching. Language in Education: Theory and Practice. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lee, J. (2000). Tasks and Communicating in Language Classrooms. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Levy, M., Hubbard, P., Stockwell, G., & Colpaert, J. (2015). Research challenges in CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 28(1), 1-6.

Little, D. (2006). The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Content, purpose, origin, reception and impact. Language Teaching, 39(3), 167-190.

Littlewood, W. (2004). The task-based approach: Some questions and suggestions. ELT journal, 58(4), 319-326.

Long, M. H. (1985). A role for instruction in second language acquisition: Task-based language teaching. Modelling and assessing second language acquisition. In Hyltenstam, K., & Pienemann, M. (Eds.). (1985). Modelling and assessing second language acquisition. (pp. 77-99). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Narcy-Combes, J.-P. (2006). Deux modes de fonctionnement mémoriel en production langagière et tâches d’apprentissage des langues. Cahiers de l’APLIUT, 25(2), 77-87.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reinders, H. & White, C. (2010). The theory and practice of technology in materials development and task design. In: Harwood, N. (Ed.). Materials in ELT: Theory and Practice (p. 58-80). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Samuda, V. (2007). Tasks, design, and the architecture of pedagogic spaces. Unpublished plenary presented at the Second International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching, University of Hawai’i. Available at:

Samuda, V. (2005). Expertise in pedagogic task design. In K. Johnson (ed.), Expertise in second language learning and teaching. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 230–254.

Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomas, M. & Reinders, H. (Eds.) 2010. Task-Based Language Teaching and Technology. New York: Continuum.

Tomlinson, B. (2012). Materials development for language learning and teaching. Language Teaching, 45(2), 143-179.

Van den Branden, K. (2009). Diffusion and implementation of innovations. In M. Long & C. Doughty (Eds.), The handbook of language teaching (pp. 659–72). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Van den Branden, K. (2006). Introduction: task-based language teaching in a nutshell? In K. Van den Branden (Ed.), Task-based language education: From theory to practice. (1-16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van den Branden, K., Van Gorp, K., & Verhelst, M. (Eds.) (2007), Tasks in action: Task-based language education from a classroom-based perspective. Cambridge Scholars.

Whyte, S., & Alexander, J. (2014). Implementing tasks with interactive technologies in classroom CALL: towards a developmental framework. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 40 (1), 1-26.

Willis, J. (1996). A Framework for Task-based learning. Harlow: Longman.

Bio data

Shona Whyte is associate professor of English at the University of Nice where she teaches EFL and TEFL and researches classroom interaction, interactive technologies, and teacher education. Recent work focuses on the integration of the interactive whiteboard by language teachers (Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching, Palgrave Macmillan; Teaching languages with technology, Bloomsbury).

Spew test, anyone? On teaching and learning vocabulary

niceetoileA spew test in language testing circles means one where subjects produce as many words as possible which share a feature (e.g., begin with “b”); I sometimes fear a different interpretation when my students are nervously negotiating their first academic oral presentations.

In particular I’m thinking about my first year MA students who are preparing for national entrance exams to become high school EFL teachers in France. I’m involved in preparing them for oral exams where they give formal presentations (with notes, not slides) on the cultural themes in various literary, historical or socio-political texts, images, and audio/video recordings. The idea, I imagine, is to test their spoken English, cultural knowledge of the English-speaking world, and perhaps suitability for classroom practice.

Listening to those students’ practice presentations, alongside the usual difficulties with pronunciation/intontation, errors in grammar and vocabulary, and global communication issues (presence, time management), I find myself grappling with more nebulous concerns of what we might call level of sophistication, which seems to involve register, grammatical complexity, but also precision and variety of vocabulary.  How can we help students sound more impressive to an examining panel in this type of formal assessment of their cultural knowledge and (spoken) proficiency in English?  Or to give this a more positive spin, how can we help these future teachers develop the academic register – and particularly the varied and specific vocabulary – we would like learners to hear in the language classroom?

As always, I’m looking for intersections between what research tells us about how foreign languages are learned, what teachers are doing in the language classroom, and what our learners (and perhaps future teachers) seem to need.

Implications of vocabulary acquisition research

Nation (2011) notes that vocabulary has gone from the poor relation of second language research to a major research focus over the past three decades, but uptake of findings in this area has been patchy at best. Nation, who researches vocabulary acquisition and trains ESL/EFL teachers, cites research showing teachers tend not to “have good intuitions about what vocabulary their learners know” (2011, p. 531). This means they generally do not plan vocabulary courses well, perhaps, he suggests, because they do not see the need for particular attention to this aspect of language learning. But there’s a lot to vocabulary acquisition in a second language: thousands of words to be learned (see Thornbury on vocabulary size), a lot to know about each (see Lundgaard, 2015, for an accessible overview), and of course there are many different ways of going about the business of ingurgitating these new words to bring up in subsequent intercourse (or indeed force-feeding our learners).

Nation’s first recommendation to teachers is to distinguish between high and low frequency words, and treat each differently.  He says,

The idea behind this distinction is that the high-frequency words make up a relatively small, very useful group of words that are important no matter what use is made of the language. Because each word in this group is frequent, the learners will get a very good return for learning them. The low-frequency words, on the other hand, consist of tens of thousands of words that occur very infrequently, are often restricted to certain subject areas, and thus do not deserve any substantial amount of classroom attention.

For high frequency items, Nation recommends extensive reading with graded readers. Another complementary method is direct learning. Nation claims “the deliberate learning of vocabulary using word cards is one way of speeding up learners’ progress towards an effective vocabulary size.”  Nation (2011) and Nation and Chung (2009) have concrete suggestions concerning deliberate learning, using academic word lists (see Cobb, Thomas, and Whyte references below).

However, Nation also makes a distinction between vocabulary teaching and vocabulary learning, quoting an illustrative study of direct teaching of vocabulary where “less than half of the taught words were learned” (Nation, 2011, p. 536). So for high frequency words, Nation suggests that direct learning is more effective than direct teaching.  Of this more later.

But for low-frequency items, a different approach is indicated:

From a teacher’s perspective, the best approach to low-frequency words is through training in strategies such as guessing from context, deliberate learning using word cards and mnemonic tricks like the keyword technique and word parts, and using dictionaries to help learning. These strategies are so widely useful that they justify the use of classroom time. The goal of strategy training is that learners will eventually be able to use the strategies without the help of a teacher.

Intelligent vocabulary learning: direct and learner-controlled

To me, these findings support an intermediate position between the “let it all hang out” of strongly communicative approaches, for example, and the “drill and kill” of more closely teacher-controlled methods such as grammar-translation.  To learn new words, some kind of grunt work is required, but it needs to come from their learners rather than imposed top-down by teachers. And it needs to be done intelligently.

Two recent posts by Jordan on vocabulary research and the involvement load hypothesis also lend themselves to this kind of interpretation.  Drawing on Yongqi Gu’s (2003) review on vocabulary research, Jordan (2015a) makes the following observations about teaching and learning vocabulary:

1. Intentional reading should supplement incidental reading.
2. Dictionaries help vocabulary learning
3. Rote Rehearsal is good for Vocabulary Learning
4. Beware Mnemonics
5. Organised learners learn faster
6. Research is needed on learning lexical chunks

Jordan (2015b) also cites a study of the involvement load hypothesis in relation to vocabulary acquisition (Hulstijn & Laufer, 2001) which he interprets thus:

This hypothesis suggests that classroom reading tasks, using a relatively-short text and various well-established activities pertaining to the text, can be manipulated in such a way as to induce a high involvement load, which in turn results in dramatic improvements in vocabulary acquisition.

If teachers want to manipulate the involvement load of classroom vocabulary learning activities, they should bear in mind learners’ motivation (or need) to use words, the effort required to understand their meaning (or search), and the contexts in which new words are compared to others (evaluation):

(0) Absent: Learner doesn’t need to understand or produce word.
(1) Moderate: Learner is required to learn the word by external source (teacher).
(2) Strong: Learner makes decision to learn or produce the word.

(0) Absent: Meaning or translation of word is provided.
(1) Present: Learner must look up meaning / translation of a word.

(0) Absent: Words are not compared with other words.
(1) Moderate: Words are compared to other words in provided contexts.
(2) Strong: Words are compared to other words in self-created contexts.

The involvement load hypothesis seems to support Nation’s positioning of the learner, rather than the teacher, at the centre of vocabulary acquisition efforts: if the learner makes the decision to learn, goes to the trouble of looking up words, and places them in a personalised context, then learning is improved.

So what does this mean for language teachers and language learners? Put simply,

  1. learners need to take vocabulary acquisition into their own hands
  2. teachers should […] focus on strategy training instead of the direct teaching of vocabulary (Nation, 2011: 533).

And more practically, some places to start for teachers and learners:

  • a simple word wall (Harris)
  • extensive reading (Bard) versus narrow reading (Roberts)
  • suggestions for the classroom and homework activities (storytelling, corpus tools, study skills; Braddock, Renshaw)
  • word lists and corpus tools (Cobb; Nava; Thomas; Whyte).

Like successful dieters, learners should consume new vocabulary with discernment and moderation; with luck some of this wisdom will help us all keep the urge to regurgitate under control …


[ Being of the old school where names and dates carry their share of meaning, I can’t help wishing bloggers always had first and last names on their about pages, and posts were dated 😉 ]

Bard, R. (2015). Looking at Extensive Reading through TALO and TAVI lenses. Rose Bard’s ELT diary.

Braddock, P. (2014). Building and retaining vocabulary. Teachingenglish.

Cobb, T. The compleat lexical tutor.

Gu, P.Y., 2003. Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language: Person, Task, Context and Strategies. TESL-EJ, 7 (2).

Harris, R. Word wall. Fabenglishideas.

Hulstijn, J. & Laufer, B. (2001) Some Empirical Evidence for the Involvement Load Hypothesis in Vocabulary Acquisition. Language Learning, 51(3), 539–558.

Jordan, G. (2015a). Vocabulary learning. Critical ELT.

Jordan, G. (2015b). The involvement load hypothesis. Critical ELT.

Lundgaard, G. (2015). What is it to learn a word? California Language Teachers’ Association conference presentation

Nation, I.S.P. (2011). Research into practice: Vocabulary. Language Teaching, 44(4), 529–539 doi:10.1017/S0261444811000267

Nation, I.S.P. & Chung, T. (2009). Teaching and testing vocabulary. In Long, M. & Doughty, C. (Eds.). Handbook of language teaching, pp. 543-59. Blackwell.

Nava, M. (2012). How to explain a word using corpora. EFL notes.

Renshaw, J. Learning twigs.
Vocabulary activities

Roberts, R. Learning vocabulary through reading.

Thomas, J. ELT methodologies
– Academic writing resources
– Vocabulary

Thornbury, S. V is vocabulary.

Whyte, S. Resources for academic speaking/terminology for teachers of English language/culture.