H is for Hypotheses


Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“I’m a researcher! Why has no one ever told me?”

Teachers are inherently researchers, driven by natural curiosity to understand their students’ problems and to consider ways of addressing them. Sometimes they apply old approaches and methods that may have been key to their own first or second language acquisition. Sometimes teachers become creative and innovate new approaches and methods. In doing so, they tend to follow the scientific method:

  • ask a question
  • research the question
  • construct a hypothesis (a guess)
  • test the hypothesis with an experiment
  • analyze the data and draw a conclusion
  • share results

For example, a teacher asks a question: Why are students doing poorly on tests? She is surprised because she thinks they know (or should know) the content on which they’re being tested. Doing some research (starting online), she finds a variety of variables that could be responsible:

  • The tests are held after lunch; maybe students are too sleepy after eating.
  • The tests are one hour long; maybe students need more time to demonstrate what they know.
  • The tests are written; maybe students don’t perform as well when writing because most of the teacher’s evidence of their abilities is based on their spoken output.
  • The tests are too narrow; students have to study one or more chapters of material, but are only assessed on a small portion.

The teacher expands her research to directly ask her students what they think. She decides this last problem, of the tests being too narrow, is the possible pedagogical culprit.

Based on this research and student feedback, the teacher formulates a hypothesis. It’s messy at first because she isn’t exactly sure how to word it to cover all contingencies, but it basically looks like this:

Students asked to demonstrate what they know do better on tests than students who are asked to recall a subset of what the teacher expects them to know.

Hmm. It’s a bit vague, but that’s okay at this point because designing an experiment will help to make it clearer. It can be refined as the teacher goes along. She decides to use the class’s current area of study, the ten most common irregular verbs. This is the content for which the teacher expects her students to demonstrate mastery:

Base form Past tense Past participle
say said said
make made made
go went gone
take took taken
come came come
see saw seen
know knew known
get got got/gotten
give gave given
find found found

The teacher has taught the forms for several years and, in previous tests, students tend to get between 50 and 80 percent with a few outliers — those who are surprisingly less able or more able. Her method of testing the students is to have sentences with blanks that students fill in with the correct form of the verb.

For her experiment, the teacher needs to have a comparison between two random groups of students. She decides to work with one class and has the students number off, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. All of the number 1 students do the traditional test. All of the number 2 students are handed copies of a test paper with these instructions:

The following verbs are irregular: say, make, go, take, come, see, know, get, give, find. Explain what you know about irregular verbs.  

Students are given the same time to work and, not surprisingly, the results from Group 2 are mixed. Some students have listed (to varying degrees of success) all the past and past participle forms of the verbs. One student has written a story, using many of the verb forms in the base, past, and past participle forms. Some students have written what they imagine as being rules. For example, the irregular verbs take, see, and give all add an n to make the past participle so, the rule becomes: For irregular verbs other than make, go, and come, the past participle is formed by adding an n.

The rule will strike you as absurd because although it is correct for some words, there are an equal number of contrary examples. But, from the teacher’s point of view, it shows that the students are thinking. They are struggling to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense; that’s why we call them irregular verbs. The students are actually acting as scientists themselves, creating a hypothesis that will turn out to be false as more data (a full list of irregular verbs) comes along.

A dedicated teacher will repeat the experiment, perhaps modifying the instructions to get students to better focus on the problem, and eventually compile data comparing performance of the non-experimental and experimental students. She would then likely share her conclusions, either informally in a chat with other teachers or, more formally, at a conference presentation or a paper publication. This last part is important to evaluate the findings and re-test them, perhaps examining other variables.

Over time, hypotheses are created, challenged, and either accepted or discarded. Linguistics is full of hypotheses but surprisingly short of theories. What’s the difference?

Theory versus Hypothesis
A hypothesis is a testable prediction about what we expect to happen. For example, here is the not-so-famous Beatty Hypothesis: Students who are judiciously praised do better than students who are not.

Alas, it’s a weak hypothesis, having more to do with common sense than scientific inquiry. This tells us something about hypotheses: they are often based on something that is less obvious or counter-intuitive. It would be possible to test my hypothesis, although it would run against another rule of educational research: do no evil. In my test, I could praise half my students and withhold praise from another half, but it would be unfair and cruel to do so. Any results such a test would produce would not be ethically justified even if the outcomes were dramatic and indisputable.

A theory, on the other hand, is an established principle developed to explain some aspect of language teaching and learning after repeated observations and testing. It incorporates facts, laws, predictions, and tested hypotheses that are widely accepted.

Input or output or both?
Two of the most famous hypotheses in linguistics come from Stephen Krashen and Meryl Swain. In the 1970s and 1980s, Krashen developed a series of hypotheses that tend to be simplified in most teachers’ minds to the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, with the suggestion that all that is necessary for language acquisition is a high degree of comprehensible input. The hypothesis suggests that students learning a language only require access to quality examples of writing and speaking just above their current language levels. Swain countered with the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis, which insists that students need to use the language; they need to speak and write, not just read and listen.

Swain’s output hypothesis would seem obvious to most, but here’s the thing: Krashen has never backed down. He simply asks, “Where’s the proof?” In response, some claim his hypothesis is untestable. For this and other reasons, it remains a hypothesis, unlikely to become generally accepted and given theory status.

Other hypotheses in language teaching and learning are equally contested.

Despite the fact that you think your dog barks, growls, and whimpers in ways that you perfectly understand, the Innateness Hypothesis suggests that language is unique to humans. Experiments with an ape named Koko, who reputedly understands 2,000 words, suggests that there is recognition but a lack of understanding of grammar or syntax. Other undoubtedly intelligent creatures from birds to whales make strings of sounds, but they cannot modify them to adapt to special circumstances. They may even communicate, but they cannot communicate unique messages.

The Critical Period Hypothesis notes that before puberty, the brain’s two hemispheres are not independent. In trying to understand why younger people supposedly find it easier to learn a language (in itself disputable), it was hypothesized that undivided brain lobes facilitated language acquisition. However, brain mapping with MRI scanners shows widespread and similar activity in both lobes before and after puberty so, today, this hypothesis appears weak.

The Teachability Hypothesis suggests learners can only acquire a new language when they are linguistically ready to do so. For example, a very young student may be unable to remember a complex grammatical structure, no matter how simply or extensively it is taught. It suggests that grammatical structures should only be taught at certain stages of a child’s development. This seems to be born out by repeated testing.

These are but a few examples, and teachers should be aware of the many hypotheses central to language teaching and learning. The best way to understand and accept or reject a hypothesis is to test it out in the classroom. The next time you’re frustrated in class, think of a hypothesis that could explain the problem.

Tasks for Teachers
1. Do dogs understand grammar? How could you create an experiment to figure this out? Think about it (before peeking at the suggested approach below).

2. Identify a problem with your class or an individual student. Work through the steps of the scientific process to research, create, and test a hypothesis. Be sure to share your findings.

Tasks for Students
1. The Innateness Hypothesis suggests animals do not have language in the ways that humans do, but they do communicate. Ask each student in your class to select a different animal and briefly report on its communication abilities. What do birds say? What do whales say?

2. For students with younger siblings, how do they learn language? Ask students to become researchers and observe younger siblings and interview parents about a baby’s first words and the words toddlers acquire.

Teacher Question 1 sample answer:

  • ask a question: Can dogs understand grammar?
  • research the question: Look online; there’s one reference below.
  • construct a hypothesis: Dogs can understand key words, but cannot understand grammar.
  • test the hypothesis with an experiment: Create one or more pairs of sentences with words a dog would understand but where the grammar and/or syntax changes the message. For example, “Walk.” “No walk.” Say the two expressions to a dog in the same neutral voice at different times and see whether the dog reacts differently.
  • analyze the data and draw a conclusion: Does the use of one sentence instead of another never / sometimes / always make a difference?
  • share results: Discuss with a skeptical dog owner.

Salkeld, L. (2013, December 22). Chaser really IS top dog: Border collie who can understand 1,000 words – and even basic grammar. Daily Mail Online. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2527933/Top-dog-Scientists-teach-border-collie-understand-sentences-1-000-words.html#ixzz3sWRrvk00

Dr. Ken Beatty, TESOL Professor at Anaheim University in California, has also taught in Asia, Canada, and the Middle East, and lectures widely on language teaching and learning from the elementary through university levels. He has given 200+ teacher-training sessions in 25 countries and is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).