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Introduction to Applied Linguistics

 Lecture notes

Course: Applied Linguistics

Week: 1

Lecturer: Keith Richards

Topic: Views of theory

These notes are extracts only and do not include the arguments developed in the lectures. Neither do they include handouts or workshop activities. They are an additional resource designed primarily for those who attended the relevant lectures.

Two views

Compare the following quotations and their reflection of different views of the relationship between teaching and research:

‘[Teachers] know that 95 per cent of their pedagogical decision-making is based on hunches and only five per cent maybe on research. It shouldn’t be that ratio. It should be 50-50.’

(L. Selinker, Professor of Applied Linguistics, in an interview with the EFL Gazette, January 1994.)

‘[An idea or proposal in an academic journal] has to feel right. I can’t do anything if it doesn’t feel right.’

(Angela, experienced EFL teacher, interviewed February 1994.)

Communicative competence

Note the title of this classic paper (‘Theoretical bases…’). You might find it interesting to track down the paper three years later where the model was extended:







(M. Canale & M. Swain. 1980. Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1:1-47)

Different views of theory…

These two quotations reflect fundamentally different views. Where do you stand?

‘The concern of Applied Linguistics is to provide a theoretical perspective for practical and applicable courses of action.’ (Widdowson)

‘Theory is context free; but teachers face a number of important constraints in their work.’ (Bowers)

Bowers, R. and Widdowson, H. 1983. Debate on appropriate methodology. In Dunford House Seminar on Appropriate Methodology. London: British Council.

If you’d like to see how Widdowson’s thinking on this issue has developed over a quarter of a century, you might like to watch his talk at the Finnish Association of Applied Linguistics (AFinLAn) in 2007:

…and a spanner in the works

This is an interesting perspective on applied linguistics. Try to think of examples of ways in which it has been ‘problem driven’. Others (e.g. Allwright) would prefer ‘puzzle’ or other descriptions. Why do you think someone might prefer ‘puzzle’ to ‘problem’ in an applied subject?

‘Applied linguistics, I shall maintain throughout this book, is essentially a problem-driven discipline, rather than a theory-driven one … Posing the question whether applied linguistics should have theories and whether the discipline as a whole should seek a unifying and homogenous set of theoretical constructs is, in my view, a misleading and unproductive line to pursue’

McCarthy, M. 2001. Issues in Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pages 4&5.

A crude summary

This is how we might crudely summarise these two very different positions:

Theory = general underpinning, a guide to action

Theory = set of axioms allowing prediction and hypothesis testing

The end of 'grand theory'

We live in a postmodern, 'postmethod' age, where old, all-embracing theories are no longer accepted as a valid basis for explanation. Canagarajah captures the mood well:

‘We live in an age when metanarratives or grand theories that attempt to provide unifying and totalizing explanations for social and intellectual developments are viewed with suspicion.’

Canagarajah, A. S. 2006. TESOL at forty: What are the issues? TESOL Quarterly, 40/1: 9-34.

Levels of theory

I think it helps if we distinguish levels of theory from types of theory. As I explained in the lecture, many of the ‘debates’ in our field around this topic actually boil down to exchange between people who have different views of theory. Here is a model of levels of theory (although I think that the lowest level hardly deserves the name):

Theoretical system

Conceptual framework


Ad hoc classificatory system

Frankfort-Nachmias, C. & Nachmias, D. 1992. Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Fourth Edition. London: Arnold. Page 38-41.

Types of theory

And here’s another way of cutting the cake:

Grand theory (A way of interpreting the world)

Middle-range theory (‘a set of concepts is used to define, describe and suggest possible explanations for some phenomenon or activities’)

Micro-theory (‘testable propositions that attempt to attribute causality to particular phenomenon (sic)’)

Walford, G. 2001. Doing Qualitative Educational Research. London: Continuum. Page 148.

One definition of theory

After all that, I decided that I should at least offer a definition of theory, on the understanding that it’s a very difficult concept to pin down precisely. The following is about the most reasonable I’ve come across:

‘A sound theory is the conceptual foundation for reliable knowledge; theories help us to explain and predict phenomena of interest to us and therefore, to make intelligent practical decisions.’

Frankfort-Nachmias, C. & Nachmias, D. 1992. Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Fourth Edition. London: Arnold. Page 37.

Some reading

You should definitely try to read the McCarthy's chapter this term. It makes a good starting point for exploring some of the issues we'll touch on. Kumaravadivelu's overview of major trends in TESOL methods over the past 15 years is required reading and will feature in the 'Theory and Practice Revisited' sessions in week 7. The Canagarajah paper in the same issue of TESOL Quarterly is also worth reading.

If you want a good overview of CLT from historical and international perspectives, Savignon’s paper makes excellent reading. The papers by Hiep and Nazari are also very accessible, with a strong local flavour. You might like to reflect how many teachers in your context share the views of the teachers in Hiep’s study and consider whether they, like the teachers in Nazari’s paper, tend to adopt a ‘narrow’ approach to CLT. Xinmin and Adamson provide a revealing study of how a single ‘traditional’ teacher responds to the demands of an innovative methodology. The distinction between pedagogy and methodology is an interesting one and you might find the table on page 325 useful. You could compare this with a similar study by Feryok.

Lee argues that communicative competence is usually approached in conceptual terms but that it might more usefully be approached in terms of what it means at the level of human action. If you're interested in classroom interaction, this would be worth reading, but it's by no means an introductory text.

Feryok, A. 2008. An Armenian English language teacher’s practical theory of communicative language teaching. System, 36(2): 227-240.

Hiep, P. H. 2007. Communicative language teaching: unity within diversity. ELT Journal, 61(3): 193-201.

Kumaravadivelu, B. 2006. TESOL Methods: changing tracks, challenging trends. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1): 59-81.

Lee, Y-A. 2006 Towards respecification of communicative competence: condition of L2 instruction or its objective? Applied Linguistics, 27(3): 349-376.

McCarthy, M. 2001. Issues in Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Chapter 1]

Nazari, A. 2007. EFL teachers’ perception of the concept of communicative competence. ELT Journal, 61(3): 202-210.

Savignon, S. J. 2006. Beyond communicative language teaching: What’s ahead? Journal of Pragmatics, 39: 207-220.

Zheng, X. and Adamson, B. 2003. The pedagogy of a secondary school teacher of English in the People’s Republic of China: Challenging the stereotypes. RELC Journal, 34(3): 323-337.