May 17, 2023

Interesting recent research according to Penny Ur (IATEFL 2023) - Pt. 1

Insights from Penny Ur’s IATEFL 2023 talk in lieu of a proper conference report

Few people in the industry can make research sound sexy the way Penny Ur and Scott Thornbury can. But it’s probably only the now retired Penny Ur who can get away with a conference session entitled Interesting recent research and the blurb that goes: 

“One of the advantages of being retired but still involved in ELT is that one has more time to browse through recent books and journals in search of interesting research studies. In this session, I’ll share some of the ones I’ve found on a variety of topics…”

Penny Ur started her session with some caveats: not all the research is applicable or practicable for the classroom while not everything that goes on in the classroom is supported by research – a sentiment she has often expressed elsewhere

After defining what is meant by recent (the last 5-10 years) and what is considered interesting (what she personally finds interesting), in what followed Penny Ur bombarded the audience with highlights of no less than 30 research studies – all in under 25 minutes! I doubt that any blogger reporting from the conference could keep up with the barrage, except for, perhaps, Sandy Millin1. And, as you can see, I have also been fired with enthusiasm to report on this session – my only write-up from IATEFL 2023.

Helpfully, the studies she presented were divided into six strands:
  • Age and language learning
  •  L1 in the language classroom 
  • Oral corrective feedback 
  • Inferencing meaning from context 
  • The flipped classroom 
  • The use of pictures
Below I briefly summarise each strand accompanied by some personal thoughts and reflections.

Age and language learning

The popular belief that children are better foreign language learners has prompted educational policy makers around the world to advocate for an earlier start of foreign language instruction. Recent – and not so recent – research, however, shows that younger is not always better. In fact, numerous studies conducted in school settings indicate to the contrary.

The results of the Barcelona Age Effect (BAF) project, a longitudinal study reported in Muñoz (2006), show that in a typical foreign language setting such as a primary/secondary school, where time is limited, age does not afford the same advantages as it does in a naturalistic language learning setting. Contrariwise, older learners (teenagers) may fare better.

In a review of research on the age factor, Muñoz and Singleton (2010) lament the fact that other factors contributing to learner success have been largely ignored. Among these are the learners' motivation, attitudes, affiliation with the L2 and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of exposure and quality of input. The kind of learning child learners are better at - implicit learning - requires vast amounts of exposure. Unfortunately, in a school setting with a couple of classes a week, exposure is woefully insufficient making it difficult for children to leverage implicit learning mechanisms.

In their recent paper, Lightbrown and Spada (2020) – "I would read anything by them", said Penny, "because they are very sensible” – argue against two common foreign language learning misconceptions: "start as early as possible" and "use only L2". They conclude that "studies in schools settings around the world have failed to find long-term advantages [ultimate attainment] for an early start or exclusive use of the L2 in the classroom". But before we move on to the latter topic, here are some personal reflections.

Further thoughts and practical implications

From the usage-based perspective, language learning relies on the massive amount of exposure. In the course of their daily lives, L1 acquirers (children) are exposed to thousands of linguistic constructions, from which they gradually extract patterns and regularities. See Alison Wray's discussion in The puzzle of language learning: From child’s play to‘linguaphobia’ , in which she argues against an earlier commencement of foreign language instruction in the UK. Coming from the usage-based perspective, Wray contends that a classroom-based approach to L2 learning may be at odds with young children's natural language learning tendencies, specifically memorisation and manipulation of whole chunks of language.

Check out also this popular article by Florence Myles, a researcher from the University of Essex (like Penny Ur would read anything by Lightbrown and Spada, I’d read anything by Florence Myles), which I often use on my teacher-training courses as an introduction to the 'younger is better' debate.

The use of L1

“English is not the only way to go” could be the subtitle of this strand of research presented in the talk. The most recent study on the topic – de la Fuente & Goldenberg’s (2022) – involved two groups of adult beginners learning Spanish. Although both groups made progress in their Spanish proficiency – measured through speaking and writing tests – the class where the use of L1 was not discouraged outperformed the one that stuck to the target language only. The authors argue for a principled use of L1, not only as a last resort (when all else fails), but for, among others, the following functions:

  • procedural communication
  • establishing or maintaining control of the group
  • reducing anxiety 
  • explicit focus on grammatical and vocabulary 

Promoting the use of L1 may seem easier in EFL contexts but is perfectly feasible in ESL contexts as well, as described in Menken and Sanchez’s (2019) study conducted in New York. Several public schools offering courses in ENL (English as a New Language – an updated term for ESL) implemented translanguaging pedagogy – bringing students’ home language into class discussions, developing multilingual literacy strategies etc. The study found that translanguaging can not only serve as a  scaffolding tool for learning English, but result in transformative changes for the school as a whole by empowering minority students and offering them better opportunities for academic advancement.

I found less convincing Lee’s (2018) study, in which low-proficiency students in Korea were encouraged to write essays in L1 first, before translating them into English. But I was pleasantly surprised by Scheffler and Butzkamm's (2019) defence of bilingual drills, in which a teacher gives prompts in L1 (German and Polish in the present study) and students respond in English, drawing on usage-based approaches to L2 acquisition. "Surprised" because in the past Scheffler was quite critical of usage-based theories (see, for example, his debate with Christian Jones in ELT Journal) and "pleasantly" because one of the suggested drills in the article uses Katie Melua’s song If you were a sailboat. Drills don’t have to be be boring and mechanical –  Schefller and Butzamp show that bilingual drills can be used not only for the manipulation of structures, but also for the manipulation of ideas and induce positive emotions in learners.

Further thoughts and practical implications

The last study immediately reminded me of Ken Lackman's excellent IATEFL 2022 workshop on just that: using drills, although his focus was substitution drills. See my last year's IATEFL report with a link to Ken's handout. As you can see, some practitioners didn't ditch the drills when they fell out fashion. 

Oral corrective feedback 

Penny set the scene for this strand of interesting recent research by citing Lyster and Randa’s (1997) seminal study, which showed that recast was the most common oral error correction technique used by teachers, but the least effective one. Just to remind the reader, when recasting the teacher doesn't indicate directly that the learner's utterance was incorrect, but rather repeats it with the errors corrected (Student: I want to explain why I lated. Teacher: Oh, you want to explain why you were late. Student: Yes). Recasts are popular because, presumably, they allow unobtrusive reformulation of ill-formed utterances and do not throw learners off like explicit error correction might. 

The question remains as to whether we should correct at all during a communicative task or is it better to refrain from correcting until after the task has been completed? In other words, the crux of the matter is timing: should we provide immediate correction, but perhaps do so unobtrusively using recasts (although these have been shown to be rather ineffective) or should we delay correction?

Learners seem to prefer to be corrected at the moment they make the mistake, as shown in the studies by Li (2017) and Harmer, P (2015) (the latter happens to be Jeremy Harmer's brother). Of course, just because students prefer something doesn’t mean it is actually beneficial. So what do intervention studies show?

The most recent paper mentioned in the talk (Fu and Li 2022) claims the superiority of immediate corrective feedback (although it was conceptualized somewhat differently to previous studies). The experiment described in the paper involved several groups of middle school students in a private school in China learning regular and irregular verb forms. The authors recommend correcting errors immediately after the first exposure to a new language item in order to rectify errors before they are proceduralized in the learner’s interlanguage. For optimal results, they argue, instruction and correction should go hand in hand.

Further thoughts and practical implications

Error correction is a topic of considerable interest and intense debate. Plonsky and Brown (2015) identified as many as 18 meta-analyses of corrective feedback in the SLA literature, none of them providing conclusive evidence as to which method of correction works best. Perhaps, while researchers keep debating, teachers would be best advised to keep using – or, when necessary, refraining from – a variety of techniques to ensure optimal results. As one of many numerous papers on error correction argues, “a variety of CF [corrective feedback] types is probably more effective than consistent use of only one type” and “it may not be necessary or even possible for researchers to identity the single most effective CF strategy” (Lyster, Saito, and Sato 2013: 21). Nuff said.

to be continued ...

Click HERE for Part 2


A full list of references to research studies cited in the talk can be found on Penny Ur's Padlet board. Additional references not mentioned in the talk are listed here:

Lyster, R., Saito, K., & Sato, M. (2013). Oral corrective feedback in second language classrooms. Language Teaching, 46(1), 1-40.

Myles, F. (2015, July 30). Is it a case of ‘the younger, the better’ for children learning a new language? The Conversation. 

Plonsky, L., & Brown, D. (2015). Domain definition and search techniques in meta-analyses of L2 research (Or why 18 meta-analyses of feedback have different results). Second Language Research, 31(2), 267-278.

Wray, A. (2008). The puzzle of language learning: From child's play to ‘linguaphobia’. Language Teaching, 41(2), 253-271.

1 Sandy Millin, a teacher trainer and author, is a very prolific blogger


  1. There is so much incredibly good and very practical L2 research, but so few people read it and, very sadly, even fewer then talk about it. The result is that very little of these great research findings make their way into anyone's classrooms.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Keith.
      I can think of so many reasons why this is the case that it would have to be a blog post in itself (In fact, I have written about it, HERE, for example). Said that, some research does eventually make its way into the classroom. Almost all the things you debunked in Vocabulary Myths are generally no longer used in practice.

  2. "I've been following this blog for a while now, and I'm continually impressed by the author's dedication and expertise. The topics covered are diverse and always engaging. Hats off to the talented blogger!"
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