How to write a Synthesis of Research Findings

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Research Report No. 13 Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research John Harris and Pádraig Ó DuibhirEffective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research BackGround In June 2010, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) signalled a move from review of the Primary School Curriculum (Department of Education and Science DES, 1999) to reconstruction of the area of language in the curriculum. A significant consideration in this regard was the publication of Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009). Although both the Primary School Curriculum and Aistear were informed by the research of their time, Aistear has drawn on research and theory in the past decade to highlight aspects of early childhood education such as the importance of play and the role of the adult in supporting children’s learning. During the same time, findings from curriculum reviews and research informed our understanding of children’s lives today and how they learn in primary schools, including the areas of reading, writing and oral language, and how these elements of language interact for children.In developing the language curriculum, it is important to draw upon up-to-date research in this regard. In December 2009, the NCCA commissioned a desktop study to synthesise research in the area of language teaching and learning. The purpose of the research was to identify, evaluate, analyse and synthesise evidence from Irish and international research about language teaching and learning in order to inform discussion about language in the Primary School Curriculum, and in particular the teaching of Irish and additional languages. The invitation to tender called for a distinct focus on classroom practice rather than on theoretical approaches, in order to generalise to key principles for successful language teaching. 12Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research m EG thodolo y The research was envisaged as a desk-top study which would have some, but not all, of the features of a Best Evidence Synthesis (BES), drawing together research findings most relevant to second language teaching in primary schools in Ireland, for which there is evidence showing their effectiveness. However, one of the key features of BES is that an advisory group of experts work with the authors at all stages of the research process, locating and assembling data, evaluating and synthesising evidence and interrogating the emerging themes (Ministry of Education, New Zealand, 2004). An advisory group of this kind was not a feature of this synthesis study. In the search for best evidence strict criteria were applied to evaluate evidence, and only studies in which a clear causal link and objectively determined improvement in learner competence were present were included. This resulted in considerable limiting of the number of studies considered in the first phase of the synthesis. The themes that emerged describe a number of practices that can be said to be effective for second language learners in contexts similar to primary schools in Ireland. Due to the limited number of studies included in the synthesis, however, the emergent themes give only a partial picture of practice in language teaching. The addition of a further chapter which brings together findings from descriptive (process- type) research adds significantly to the completeness of the report in answering the original research questions – what works for language learners, and why? 13Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research s ynthEsis of kEy E studi s : EmErGEnt thEE m s for EffEE ctiv G lan GE ua E t achinG The key findings relating to effective practice in language teaching that emerged from the synthesis study are • corrective feedback • Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) • intensive language programmes. • orientation of language programmes – communicative or analytical approaches – and the importance of teacher factors • the importance of second language (L2) literacy development Corrective feedback There is evidence to show that corrective feedback, in the form of prompts to students, would be effective in improving second language development for primary school children in fourth to sixth classes. Prompts are more effective than recasts (recasts are when the teacher repeats the utterance with the error corrected) which in turn are more effective than ignoring errors. Care should be taken that any corrective feedback given to young learners should not undermine their self-esteem or confidence. Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) Evidence shows that language learning is more effective when it is combined with content learning in another subject other than the language being learned. Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) has been shown to improve students’ language proficiency, without negatively impacting on the development of either the students’ first language, or their performance in the subject area being taught. CLIL enables learners to encounter language in context and 14Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research use it for authentic communication, and challenges them to use the target language for cognitive purposes to acquire knowledge, skills and information. The report notes that the context of Irish primary schools is particularly favourable to using CLIL in teaching Irish as a second or additional language, as all primary teachers need to demonstrate a satisfactory level of competence in Irish to gain full recognition as a primary school teacher. Three forms of CLIL that could be used effectively in primary schools are described. Individual teachers could consider using CLIL informally, either in their language class or by teaching content from other subject areas through Irish from time to time. Schools could decide to offer an extended core programme where a number of subjects or aspects of subjects would be taught through Irish in a more explicit way. Alternatively schools could choose to offer partial immersion programmes for up to 50% of instructional time. Such whole-school initiatives would require the support of parents and the school community, as well as support for teachers in the form of continuous professional development and provision of resources. Intensive language programmes There is strong evidence to suggest that intensive programmes of instruction in a second or additional language over a short time period are more effective than drip feed programmes where learners are exposed to limited amounts of the language over a longer period. The reason intensive programmes are more effective is that they allow opportunities for students to undertake sustained activities, use the language they have learned, and achieve a basic level of communicative ability that supports spontaneous communication and enhances motivation and success. The key difference between intensive language programmes and CLIL approaches is that the focus is on language learning (learning the language through 15Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research communicative activities) rather than on content learning (learning another subject through the language). Orientation of language programmes (communicative or grammatical/analytical approaches) and the importance of teacher factors The evidence from research shows contradictory results – in some studies communicative oriented courses did not result in any improvement in students’ proficiency while in others the language proficiency of learners in classrooms where experiential and communicative activities were emphasised were better than those where there was a traditional grammatical/analytical approach. The conclusion is that the link between course design and pupil proficiency is quite weak and is dependent on context. It is not possible to design an ideal curriculum or course for every situation, and the critical concern should be achieving the right balance between communicative and analytical activities. There is strong evidence to suggest that teacher characteristics such as experience and skill are critical in achieving that balance, and that teacher competence is more important than the orientation of the language curriculum or course in supporting children’s language development. However, as noted later in the report, research has not so far provided clear guidance on what balance should be struck between form-focused and meaning- or communication-focused activities. Development of L2 literacy skills Evidence shows that the development of students’ L2 literacy skills supports the development of their second language proficiency in general. Reading aloud (teacher reading aloud to children) is a useful strategy to model correct pronunciation, stress and intonation and to help the children develop comprehension skills by focusing on units of meaning, especially in the beginning stages of language learning. 16Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research Research findings recommend introducing L2 learners to literacy in a gradual way from the early stages of language learning, taking account of the wider literacy instruction in other languages in the school and L1 literacy in particular. L2 reading strategies need to be explicitly taught. PE roc ss PE ty rEsEarch : additional GEE n ral PP rinci E l s for EffEE ctiv G lan GE ua tEG achin As noted earlier, the research design was modified to include an overview of principles for effective language teaching drawn from more descriptive (qualitative) data than from the quasi-experimental (quantitative data) in the original synthesis. The inclusion of this process-type research helps to provide a more complete picture of effective practice in language teaching. The main themes identified in this chapter are: • early language learning • task-based interaction • balancing form-focused and meaning activities • listening comprehension and story-telling activities • target language use • the European Language Portfolio (ELP) • language learning strategies An early start in language learning can be beneficial to learners but does not guarantee success. It is a particular feature of the Primary School Curriculum that children in primary schools in Ireland benefit from the opportunity to begin learning two languages from the early years. To be successful early language learning must be accompanied 17Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research by effective teaching. Motivation and aptitude are important characteristics; enjoyable activities develop motivation but it is also important to focus also on meta-language, accuracy and form, and to strike a balance between spontaneous communication and opportunities to plan and prepare productive language. Task-based interaction has been shown to facilitate second language learning. In task based interaction the teacher creates activities or tasks which are more than language practice activities or drills, but where learners communicate ideas and feelings and receive feedback as to whether they have been understood. These activities help learners develop production and comprehension skills and improve motivation. The role of teacher feedback and intervention needs to be carefully handled in these situations. Balancing form-focused and meaning-focused activities is also important. Research has not yet provided clear guidance on the optimum balance, but some studies suggest that alternating between activities that focus on developing fluent expression and confidence and those that focus on accuracy of form and meaning can be useful. Listening to and comprehending spoken natural language supports the development of comprehension. Through carefully planned listening activities teachers can support learners develop comprehension strategies, including word and sound recognition and use context and previous knowledge to understand content in the target language. Story telling activities can also help to promote speaking proficiency and literacy skills. Target language use by the teacher impacts positively on learners’ L2 proficiency. It is one of the principles of Curaclam na Gaeilge that the target language should be used at all times in Irish lessons, and as much as possible outside formal Irish lessons 18Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research Research shows that using the European Language Portfolio (ELP) can increase motivation and promote learner autonomy, and supports children in reflecting on their learning; this is particularly important for second language learners who may have little opportunity to use the language they learned outside schools and therefore often lack feedback on their progress and evidence of what they have learned. Developing learning strategies can have positive effects on language learning over time, and even young children can become aware of and taught to use language learning strategies. c onclusion The report highlights a number of important questions and issues for consideration in relation to language in the Primary School Curriculum. It also emphasises however, that although research can be a valuable means of informing curriculum review, it can only offer limited guidance and there are no simple answers to the questions raised. For example, although there is a substantial body of research in the area of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), in many cases findings in SLA research are not sufficiently clear or uncontested enough to provide straightforward guidance for teachers. It is notable that in this research project no studies were found to inform the teaching of Irish as a first language. This reminds us of the different contexts in which language is taught: English-medium, Irish-medium immersion and Gaeltacht schools, as well as classrooms where there is a significant minority of children for whom English is an additional language, and approximately 15% of schools where modern European languages are taught to senior classes. All these combine to create a complicated linguistic landscape for primary education in Ireland, which is one of the key challenges in developing the language curriculum for pirmary schools. 19Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research 20Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research s E c t i o n 1 i n t r o d u c t i o n 21Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research The report presented here arose from an invitation to tender for a Best Evidence Synthesis(BES) on effective language teaching. An interim report was submitted in April 2010 and a final report in July 2010. The current report contains some extra material that we added following a further stage to the research process. The report comprises five sections. In the remainder of this section, we ouline the issues that arose in conducting a synthesis of research. In Section 2 we give an account of the search processes used in the research synthesis. We explain the manner in which the database searches were carried out and how they were refined where necessary. Database searches were augmented by hand searches and the results of these 1 are also set out. In Section 3 we identify the key studies that were found to inform our synthesis and we give an account of the data extracted from each one. The findings are discussed in relation to five emergent themes. Section 4, which examines some of the many process-type and correlational studies which have been carried out, was added after the completion of the original BES in order to provide greater coverage of the field. We conclude with an examination of the implications of the present BES for classroom teaching, policy and future research needs in Section 5. 1.1 s E ynth sisinG rEsEarch on EffEctivE lanGGE ua tEG achin We discuss briefly here the literature on research synthesis and examine the complex issues underlying this process. We have included an extended discussion of these issues in Appendix 1 where we examine previous syntheses on language teaching at primary level and describe how they informed our approach to the search process and the formulation of inclusion and exclusion criteria. A critical component of a BES is to define the criteria of what constitutes evidence for the particular BES. As Norris and Ortega 1 A more detailed account of the search process is included in Appendix 2 22Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research (2000) point out stringent criteria are normally applied for the inclusion of evidence in such a synthesis. In the case of language teaching, to say something was effective, we would want to be able to show that employment of instructional practice X or teaching practice X produces a. significant improvements in pupil proficiency or in acquisition of the language (in a pre-test, post-test sense), or b. that it produces better proficiency than would be produced by other (alternative) practices or methods. We would also accept as evidence for effectiveness, researchers or teachers own judgements that performance had improved (as long as these judgements were focused in some way), or clear indications of improvement in attitude to learning. For this exercise to be useful to language teachers we need to be able to give precise descriptions of instructional practices employed in the individual studies examined and to describe classroom processes so that teachers can assess their relevance and applicability to other contexts. Unfortunately, as Mitchell & Myles (1998) point out: The findings of SLA research are not sufficiently secure, clear and uncontested, across broad enough domains, to provide straightforward prescriptive guidance for the teacher… (p. 195). There are two main types of research study that are relevant to language teaching namely process-product studies and process-type studies. Much of the research in the area of second language acquisition (SLA) is dominated by process-product type studies where good measures of effectiveness are linked to well defined and well measured instructional practices. Unfortunately, from the point of 23Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research view of teaching and the language classroom, SLA type studies tend to be quite fragmented and not age-related. Many of them deal with adult learners where the learning context and motivation to learn the target language differ greatly from children in primary school. Process-type studies, on the other hand, tend to be of a qualitative nature, some consisting of professional judgements and emerging as general consensus about what constitutes good practice. The difficulty with these studies for our BES is that they do not establish cause and effect in such a way as to link instructional practices to pupil outcomes. As Driscoll et al. (2004) point out, much of this kind of research focuses on aspects of pupils' learning, programme-planning or curriculum materials, with little, if any, reference to teaching practices or research. It is our view that for a BES to be worthwhile, to add anything new, it must be based on an exhaustive search of research data bases using well defined process-product criteria. There are already many good narrative reviews of mainly process-type studies. This is the approach we adopted in first stage of completing the synthesis. The major difficulty we faced in carrying out this work was that the synthesis of research on effective language teaching, irrespective of educational level or learner age, is a very new area (Norris & Ortega, 2010). There are no substantial groups of studies conducted on well- defined teaching practices pertaining to classrooms at primary level. The cross cutting themes referred to in the NCCA invitation to tender added to the breadth and complexity of the task of conducting a BES. The different contexts of immersion and first language (L1) in Gaeltacht schools were also integral to our search strategy. Despite exhaustive searching, no suitable studies were found to inform the teaching of Irish in a L1 context. The search for studies relevant to the Irish immersion context yielded a number of potentially useful studies but it was not possible to synthesise the evidence from these studies due to insufficient time. 24Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research 1.2 l anGuaGE E l arnErs and PG ro rammEs rElEantv to E th synthEsis study The focus of the BES sought was intended to be language at primary level with particular reference to the teaching of Irish. It was necessary to consider early on whether to include or exclude different kinds of non-mother-tongue language teaching. Primary modern foreign language learning, or early language learning, is a fairly distinct research area. The case of Irish as a minority second language has some unique aspects: a second language which is a minority language, yet in constitutional terms is one of two official languages. Nonetheless, we decided we would include studies of both modern foreign language and minority second language traditions as long as it did not contrast sharply with the Irish context. Thus, for example, we exclude studies where the second language learners were likely to encounter the target language to a significant extent in their lives outside school. Key features of Irish language teaching in primary schools have been • the long tradition of teaching the lesson largely through Irish • that class teachers rather than visiting teachers teach Irish, and • that primary teachers need to demonstrate a satisfactory level of competence in Irish to gain full recognition as a qualified primary 2 school teacher. This is a resource that is not enjoyed in many other early language learning contexts. The circumstances in Irish primary schools means that Irish can be used informally outside the Irish lesson throughout 2 This takes the form of either a qualification in Irish as an academic subject in the B.Ed. degree, a professional qualification in Irish as part of the B.Ed. programme or a qualification to meet the Irish Language Requirement (Scrúdú Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge). An evaluation of the teaching of Irish in primary schools (Department of Education and Science 2007) found that 95% of teachers in the classes visited had one of these three qualifications. 25Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research the school-day. In addition, there is a tradition in a substantial minority of classes of teaching some aspect of the curriculum through Irish, facilitating some integration elsewhere in the curriculum and increasing the pupils’ exposure to the target language. 1.3 t E h link BEtwEEn atda -Extraction and synthEsis in E th PrEE s nt study The present synthesis presents a number of challenges in trying to arrive at useful conclusions which are well grounded in evidence. Some of these arise from the relatively small number of process- product studies which met out inclusion criteria. Thus, we do not have the kind of substantial groups of experimental quantitative studies which would allow direct cause-effect conclusions about specific instructional practices and the calculation of effect sizes. Against this background, one of the key requirements we set out was that the final set of studies selected for data extraction would at least be of the product-process type, with independent and dependent variables (predictor and criterion variables in the case of correlation- regression studies) being reasonably clearly defined. In addition, we made a systematic attempt to group the small number of key studies selected in relation to a number of specific themes. Particular connections between process (instructional practices) and product (pupil proficiency or learning etc.) established in each study are then linked to a particular theme in order to establish the strength of evidence for each conclusion. Further details on our approach to linking data extraction to the synthesis may be found in the sections below and in the appendices. 26Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research s E c t i o n 2 m E t h o d o l o G y 27Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research 2.1 i nvEyntor of sourcEs and E s arch ProcEE ss s The first step in commencing our Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) was to scope out the area for investigation. As the purpose of the synthesis outlined in the invitation to tender was broad in nature, it necessitated a broad approach to the search process also. We started with a time period of 1980-2010 initially. We adopted this approach in order to include some key research on the teaching of Irish in the 1980s. Apart from these studies however, few research studies from this period were located. The search process adopted two forms, data base searches and hand searches. Searches of electronic databases are most likely to identify the key peer-reviewed articles pertinent to the research questions. We deemed it important to include, as far as was practical, so called fugitive literature (Norris & Ortega, 2000, 2006) such as dissertations and other unpublished papers. Hand searches were also used to identify books containing key material relevant to the topic. Searches were made of reference lists, research reports and evaluations published in Ireland pertaining to the teaching and learning of Irish. These included reports by the Department of Education and Skills (DES), the NCCA and An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta (COGG). We also gathered books and theses describing research studies on key topics such as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). 2.2 s Earch sourcEs and tErms We chose nine databases which we deemed to be the most relevant for the purpose of our inquiry as the primary search source. Table 2.1 shows a list of the databases searched. The search terms used can be found in Appendix 2 (Table 1), together with a description of the three phases of the search process. 28Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research Table 2.1 Databases searched Blackwell Synergy/Wiley InterScience Cambridge Journals Online Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) JSTOR LLBA (Linguistics and language behaviour abstracts) Oxford Journal Online PsychInfo/EBSCO host Project Muse Sage Journals 2.3 i nclusion and Exclusion critEria In order to identify studies for inclusion in the BES it was necessary to draw up inclusion and exclusion criteria. These criteria were applied in a general way initially by looking at the title and/or abstract of each result from the different searches. In order to ensure that no study fulfilling the criteria was excluded unintentionally the initial search process was jointly conducted by the two researchers. Agreement was reached on the identification of potential studies. This process reduced the number of results of the database searches from 8,359 to 532 results. In order for a study to be included in the synthesis it had to: • involve learners in the primary school years (4-12 age range) or inform language teaching for these pupils • focus on effective language teaching and learning in a school setting within the normal school day • concern research studies published between 1980 and 2010 (in the case of certain databases it was necessary to limit the search to studies published between 1990 and 2010) 29Effective Language Teaching: A Synthesis of Research • have a process-product type design with well-defined independent (effective instructional practices or approaches) and dependent (e.g. pupil performance, or attitudes) variables • relate to the language teaching and/or learning in one of the following three contexts: • core second language (L2) programmes (and L3 in the case of immigrant children), where the language is taught as a subject only (Phases 1 and 2) • L2 immersion settings, where the language is the language of instruction for all or part of the school day (Phase 3) • in heritage/minority/regional/endangered language programmes, where the goal is language maintenance in the case of L1 pupils and language revitalisation in the case of L2 pupils (Phase 3). Studies were excluded if: • the participants did not fall within the primary school years (4-12 age range ) or did not inform language teaching for these pupils • they concerned effective language teaching and learning outside of the school setting or outside the normal school day • they did not relate directly to L2 teaching and learning • they were not empirical or investigative studies • they concerned immigrant L2 learners of English. 2.4 r Etssul of aB tda asE sEE arch s The tables in Appendix 2 show in detail how each data base was searched, how the search terms were combined, and the manner in 30

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