Category Archives: Statistics

The Cambridge Scale – Convert Cambridge Exam Results into IELTS band scores and backwards

Learning Theories – all the major concepts at a glance


What is Study-English-Online.Net?

Three Generations of Distance Learning Pedagogy

Three Generations of Distance Learning Pedagogy

1. Cognitive Behaviourism

2. Constructivism

3. Connectivism

The 6 Factors that Reduce Cognitive Decline in Old Age and the 4 Factors that Predict Earlier-than-average Decline

Researchers have identified 6 risk factors that everyone should be aware of. The following variables reduce the risk of cognitive decline in old age according to Merriam, Gafarella & Baumgartner (2007, Learning in Adulthood, p. 371)

  1. absence of cardiovuscular and other chronic diseases
  2. living in favorable environmental circumstances
  3. substantial involvement in activities
  4. maintenance of high levels of perceptual processing speed into old age
  5. being married to a spouse of high cognitive status
  6. rating one’s self as satisfied with one’s life

Schaie et al (1994, Perceived Intellectual Performance Change over Seven Years. Journal of gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 49(3), 103-118) cited by Merriam, Gafarella & Baumgartner (2007, Learning in Adulthood, p. 371) identified 4 factors that predict earlier-than-average cognitive decline

  1. significant decrease in being flexible in one’s approach to life
  2. low educational attainment
  3. being male
  4. a low satisfaction with life success

It is certainly worth emphasizing that it clearly is about one’s beliefs and character traits about half of the time. Cherishing principles, being stubborn and pessimistic, failing to look on the bright side all seem to contribute to premature cognitive decline.

Bilingualism: Facts & Stats

Source: The Bilingual Family: A Handbook For Parents by Edith Harding & Philip Riley, 1999, CUP.

Over half of the world’s population is bilingual. This fact is usually surprising to many Europeans, who are under the impression that living with two or more languages is exceptional. (p. 27)

What matters and what doesn’t in second language acquisition?

Singleton’s survey (1983, Age as a Factor in Second Language Acquisition. CSLC, Trinity College, Dublin) of all the reserach and evidence shows clearly that age, in itself, is not particularly relevant to success in language learning, whereas motivation and opportunity are. (p. 63)

What is the same and what is different about young and adult foreign language learners?

Children put vast amounts of TIME and EFFORT into mastering a language: where adults do likewise, they seem to learn just as well, pronunciation excepted. In fact, adults do BETTER in terms of RATE of acquisition, and not so well in terms of eventual outcome: younger people do seem to acquire native-like accents, whereas older people seldom* lose their foreign accents. (p. 63)

*Seldom* does not mean *never*! I have read about about studies of adult SL learners with native-like accents in “The Study of Second Language Acquisition” (2008, 2nd edition, OUP) by Rod Ellis.

Update 24-12-12 an interesting discussion initiated by speakers of English about ways of acquiring a native-like Chinese accent 


Sources of Frustration for E-Learners

According to research, e-learners are likely to be frustrated by

  • technical difficulties
  • communication breakdowns

Source: Hara., N (2000). Student Distress In a Web-Based Distance Education Course.

How Long Should One Online Language Lesson Last?

To begin with, I am not aware of any reliable statistics.  I can only draw on my personal experience and summarize a number of related Google search results.

It is obvious, I hope, that it is impossible to spend more than 3 clock hours talking without a break.  I guess that’s the maximum.  As for the minimum, an online lesson can be as long as a regular phone call, i.e. it can last for as little as 5 or 10 minutes.  Personally, I like it when lessons are 2h15min long, with a short break or a longish filler activity when 2/3 of the time has elapsed.  But I cannot justify my preference with reference to the literature, because there is nothing in the literature:(  apart from some “circumstantial” evidence.

Let me elaborate on that.  First and foremost, a language lesson like an aerobics workout should start with a warmer. Most warmers allow the student to practise making some small talk, discuss the latest news and learn a few related lexical items,  ask questions about the last homework assignment and the like. It is an important element, though I can think of situations when you can opt out of it and “get down to business”. The usual recommendation is for a warmer to last between 3 and 10 minutes, the average being 5 (without homework questions!).

The rest of the lesson is usually comprised of activities.  Again, most activities are composites, i.e. they are made up of several parts or stages.

Stage 1 is known as lead-in.  It introduces the topic or activity and usually takes between 2 and 15 minutes in an onsite lesson.  It is impossible to give a more precise estimate, because you have to consider the number of the students present, their level, motivation and familiarity with the topic.

Stage 2 is really a meta-stage, but it must never be ignored, because it has a direct impact on how successful the activity itself will be. You tell your students what they have to do or set the task during this stage.  You may have to demonstrate,  model, elicit sample answers and so forth to make sure your students understand what they have to do and how. Timewise, this stage lasts between 1 and 5 minutes on average, and depends on the complexity and focus of the activity.

Stage 3 is frequently labelled run in lesson plans. It is the activity per se. During stage 3 your students usually do the task, and your role is to monitor.  In 1-to-1 lessons the teacher usually forms a pair with her student and does a double load of work, i.e. does the task and monitors simultaneously. Whether 1-to-1 instruction is the best way of teaching speaking is a controversial issue. I for one have my reservations, but outlining them is beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll leave it at that. This stage can last between 5 and 90 minutes.

Stage 4 is another meta-stage that is often labelled close in lesson plans. The teacher tells the students that their time is up and rounds up the activity.  Sometimes it is necessary to stop the activity before it has come to a logical conclusion, before everything has been done or all the questions have been discussed.  You have to tell your students whether they will finish the activity later in a subsequent class or for homework, or whether that’s it and no more work is necessary. Whatever you decide, you have to make sure that the students are not frustrated and can see the pros of your choice. Of course, it is great when you are very good at timing and can estimate how long an activity will take to the minute.  I have to admit it that I still have to work on that:(  and it is not uncommon for me to underestimate – I never overestimate – the time necessary to complete a task, as a result of which I occasionally have to do without some or all of the follow-up activities.  Closing the activity and telling students whatever next usually takes 0.5-5 minutes.

Stage 5 is usually the time when you provide different types of feedback.  Providing activity feedback such as the correct answers normally takes 1-3 minutes. Providing delayed feedback to do with the mistakes that you jotted down while your students were doing the activity might take up to a quarter of an hour.

Stage 6 is any follow-up activity or task that is based on the main activity.  In other words, it is a new activity that might take as long as stages 1-5 combined or as little as 3-5 minutes. What makes it a stage as opposed to a standalone activity is its dependence on the outcomes and language practised during the main activity.  It is not unusual for an activity to be followed by more than one follow-up task.

Now let me do some simple maths.

If a lesson is comprised of a shortish warmer and a short activity with a tiny little follow-up task, it should take you a minimum of

greetings 1 min

warmer – 3 mins

lead-in – 2 mins

set task – 1 min

run  – 5 mins

close – 1 min

feedback – 2 mins

follow-up  – 3 mins  (set – run – close)

feedback – 1 min

leave-taking – 1 min

GRAND TOTAL: 20 mins

As can be seen from the estimate above, it is possible to have an even shorter lesson – 10-11 mins – if you decide to do without politeness conventions (i.e. if you choose to say neither hello nor goodbye and start doing the main activity immediately), warmers (it is possible if the student is fairly advanced and has plenty of speaking practice outside class, which usually means that he doesn’t really need to “warm up” making small talk) and follow-up tasks. But would such a lesson be as efficient? I am not sure.

Another consideration is that stage 3 of most enjoyable speaking activities takes between 15 and 40 mins on average (most fun speaking games take at least half an hour to play because there are usually several rounds, and some communicative games last for an hour and a half), and the higher the student’s level is, the longer the activity tends to take. You should also allow for some thinking time. Not all speaking activities are heated discussions by nature. Nor are they tongue twisters – it is neither your nor your students’ objective to speak as fast as you can all the time, but it never hurts to introduce time limits.

What I’d like to make clear now is that the framework described above pertains to different kinds of language learning activity, not only collaborative speaking tasks.  Students may have to not only speak, but also listen, write, read and do hybrid tasks in class either alone or in pairs or small groups.  The nature of the task set as well as all the student variables have to be considered when estimating the time the lesson you plan might take.

Techniques to Increase Memory & Stimulate Deep Cognitive Processes

According to MacLachlan (1986) сited by E. L. Criswell (1989, pp 36-39)  the following instructional techniques can help the teacher teach and the student learn:

Explaining the benefits of the lesson to the student before or at the beginning of the lesson. Memory is increased when the student is paying attention.

That’s logical though sometimes easier said than done.  The authors do not really elaborate on the types of benefits I should emphasize. Drawing on my personal experience, you can motivate students by referring not only to real direct benefits, but also to fake or imaginary ones, especially if you know about your student’s priorities or beliefs to do with what works and what doesn’t in terms of learning, as well as what is good and what is bad in terms of teaching techniques.  In summary, I couldn’t agree more that it is important to motivate students, but there is more to motivation than outlining benefits.

Using the pre-question technique – it is associated with DOUBLE (!) the learning over materials without pre-questions. Presenting partial information as opposed to presenting everything at once. This stimulates curiosity, which triggers deep cognitive processes.

That’s it! I have always wondered why I do not really like it when some of my students have a copy of the teachers’ book.  And I do mean the latter – consulting the answer key is different.  Some TBs tend to contain information that only the most self-disciplined learners benefit from, e.g. sample hidden agendas for both students when pairwork is concerned. The thing is that some learners do not really do the tasks, they read the answers first and screw it all up.  It is frequently essential for foreign language students not to know what exactly it is each of them is to say or ask for the task to help them practise what is intended – reading all about the task may result in it being pointless to do it. There are tasks that you can benefit from if and only if you do them exactly as intended, step-by-step.  I am flabbergasted, honestly – if the statistic is true, and emphasis on components and procedure does make so much difference, then no wonder intended learning outcomes are ever so often so disappointing.  You can’t really do anything to prevent the learner from looking the answers up or reading on without making an effort to do the task by herself when she stumbles upon something while doing her homework, for instance.  It is 99% about learners’ taking or not taking responsibility for their own learning.

Connecting new information thematically to information learned previously, using chronologically ordered narratives to the extent possible. Asking students to draw inferences involving intermediate steps before the entire scenario is presented. The mind tends to neglect component parts when the total picture is presented.

I’d rather say that it is cause and effect that you have to emphasize. Helping learners see patterns and analogies as well as categorize new input is no less if not more important. Deliberately drawing students’ attention to detail to let them verbalize what is the same and what is different along with asking them to speculate and hypothesize is a must-have teaching technique to take on board.

Keeping information flow high to avoid boredom. Boredom is fostered by use of overly familiar words such as cliches and superordinate category nouns (the word car is more apt to bore than Rolls-Royce).

‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, they say:) Now I know why I am a big fan of exhaustive lists and specific examples.

Providing a mnemonic or a visual aid for information that is difficult to integrate with the narrative. Vivid pictures increase memory.

In other words, research has confirmed that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’.

How Many Limited English Proficient (LEP) Learners are There?

According to the US department of Education, there were ca. 5,400,000 ESL students in the USA alone in 2006 and the number is increasing.

ESL or LEP students are US fastest-growing population and are expected to make up one out of every four students by 2025.

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