Challenges in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teaching and Learning Research: Why Engagement With Theory Is Needed to Avoid Disciplinary Stagnation

Challenges in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teaching and Learning Research: Why Engagement With Theory Is Needed to Avoid Disciplinary Stagnation

Jonathan J. Felix (RMIT University, Vietnam)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4993-3.ch006
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A significant measure of pedagogical scholarship on English as a Foreign Language (EFL) higher education teaching and learning commonly prioritizes a ‘tips and tricks' approach to achieving positive student outcomes. Such often excludes or minimizes the active use of theory, being premised on problematic assumptions that can also potentially stagnate the field itself through circular reasoning. In this chapter, the author offers three considerations as a foundation for critical approaches to language teaching and learning. Firstly, the author acknowledges the performative and discursive capacity of language in shaping teaching and learning experiences; secondly, learners are positioned in this chapter as active agents in the learning process who have the potential to reinterpret or reject teaching and learning approaches; and finally, an argument is made for audience-specific teaching and learning practices using demographic data. To exemplify the application of these three considerations, Stuart Hall's Encoding-Decoding Theory serves as a key theoretical framework in this chapter, in conceptualizing critical approaches to teaching Generation Z learners.
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Language teaching and learning in higher education forms part of a larger cultural and communication process just as much as it is a pedagogical process. To make better sense of this cultural and communication process, language might be first understood as a medium for meaning, in addition to being a structure for classifying various branches of knowledge (Barker, 2004; Barker & Galasinski, 2001; Kendall & Wickham, 2001; Nealon & Searls Giroux, 2012). The importance of language learning has also been considerably documented, as scholars have observed the role of language in playing a reciprocal and reflexive role in producing, reproducing, and responding to the realities human beings experience, while also being a medium for establishing one’s view of the world from early life (Cobley & Schulz, 2013; Griffith, 2012; Littlejohn, Foss & Oetzel, 2017). Indeed, language can operate as a sixth sense through which persons engage in their lived experiences as individuals and members of a given community.

Yet, it is the specificity of any particular language which adds an additional layer of depth and complexity to one’s unique lived experience, in addition to several other internal and external factors which shape one’s way of being in the world (Peters, 2019; Tumbeva, 2019). In this respect, the long history of the dominance of the English language has been well documented by scholars (Abrar et al., 2018; Ammon, 2001; Baugh & Cable, 2002; Di Ferrante, Bernstein & Gironzetti, 2019; Master, 1998). Sometimes English as a Foreign Language (EFL) education has been employed in problematic ways in various teaching and learning contexts, which can result in barriers in a range of disciplines and activities (Bedore et al., 2012; Hanauer, Sheridan, & Englander, 2019; Helena & Nieto, 2009; Lodge, 2019; Treffers-Daller, 2019; Tsui, Tong & Chan, 2019; Zheng & Guo, 2019).

Several examples of these problematics are found in the work of one scholar who has written extensively on the topic of EFL teaching and learning, and English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) by noting the ways in which these might reinforce issues of education inequality, ‘neoliberal neo-colonialism’ and poor teaching quality, while further theorizing challenges and solutions through sociologically-oriented theory (Phan, 2004, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2017; Phan & Barnawi, 2015). These studies represent a minority practice within EFL scholarship where theory plays a key role in the analysis of data and the discourse of EFL and EMI teaching and learning activity, particularly as it relates to higher education.

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