Neuroscience and teaching English?


It’s good to be back after a couple of months (ok, maybe more 😉 ) away from the blog.  For the rest of this year, I’d like to consider the role of neuroscience in language learning and teaching.

What is neuroscience and how is it interesting to language teachers?

Are you interested in how the brain works?  If you said yes, you concur with the around 80% of teachers from around the world that a major study found are interested in brain science (Pickering and Howard-Jones, 2007).  It’s a fascinating topic, isn’t it, and I’d like to consider the role of neuroscience and the relevance of the developments in the field of brain science to language teaching.

About a year ago I was asked to write a short article about the female and male brains for the new Richmond book “Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT”.  The first section in the article is about the brain and how it works and this post is an adaptation of part of what I wrote in that article.

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In the past twenty-five years there have been some major breakthroughs in neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain.  Using a technology called fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scientists are able to look at how certain parts of the brain are activated.  Does this mean we will soon be able to read our students’ minds?  Probably not any time soon, and we do need to be cautious of scientific research and how it is reported in the popular media.  Cordelia Fine has written a fabulous book called ‘Delusions of Gender’ and in it she talks about the dangers of what psychologists call ‘reverse inferencing’.  Reverse inferencing means trying to tell what someone is thinking by looking at brain activity and “as any neuroimager will tell you, it is fraught with peril.” (Fine, 2010:  151)

The physical brain, which is studied in neuroscience, is not the same as the thinking mind, which is studied by psychologists. As Fine puts it, “‘activation’ in the brain doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doing anything useful. The location of activation in the brain is also surprisingly uninformative” (Fine, 2010: 152). We hope that in the future, neuroscience will be able to offer us more and more insights into the brain and how it works, but this is a relatively new area of research, so at the moment neuroscience does not have all the answers and there is way too much reverse inferencing going on!

There is clearly a huge interest among teachers about the brain and how it works and how knowledge of how the brain works can affect teaching.  One of the problems that has been identified is that teachers don’t have good up-to-date information about new discoveries and how this relates to teaching – we tend to read a lot in the popular media that has often been distorted and exaggerated to make it more accessible or eye-catching.  More next month about research into how women and men process language.

Are you interested in brain research – where do you get your information from?


Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.

Lethaby, C (2014) ‘Children, gender and learning’ in Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT Richmond Publishing

Pickering, S. J., and Howard-Jones, P. (2007). Educators’ views on the role of neuroscience in education: findings from a study of UK and international perspectives. Mind Brain Educ. 1, 109–113.


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Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

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