Much has been written about Teacher Action Research. 

Personally, I just view it as a teacher systematically putting a simplified version of the Scientific Method to use in his/her classroom:

  1. Formulate a hypothesis
  2. Experiment
  3. Analyze the data collected from the experiment.
  4. Form a Conclusion

Of course, teachers - and everybody else - apply this method constantly, ranging from how we shoot basketballs to how we bake a cake. Teacher Action Research, however, puts it into action in a little more formalized way.

Here are three times I've applied it with English Language Learners and how the results have informed my teaching practice today:

Immigrant Family Literacy Project

Several years ago, I made a home visit to the family of one of my Hmong refugee students. The father was very enthusiastic about how he had seen his son using a computer at school to learn English when he had visited during "Back-To-School" night. He went on to say that he wished he had a computer so he could learn English, too, because it was so difficult to regularly get to adult-school classes. I asked him if he knew other parents who felt the same and, if so, could he bring them together for a meeting? He enthusiastically agreed, and our school worked with parents to ultimately provide fifty families with free computers and home internet access.

The project was given an award by the International Literacy Association as the best example of using technology to promote literacy in the world that year (see The Best Resources For Learning About Schools Providing Home Computers & Internet Access To Students for lots of details on the literacy project).

Unfortunately, we did not have enough resources to be able to provide all our ELL families with this tech resource and provided them on a first-come, first-serve basis. At the end of the program's first year, students with home computers had an average of quadruple the gain in our English assessments than those not participating in the project.

Of course, since the project was first come, first serve, it's likely that part of that gain was due to participating families and students being more highly-motivated. However, that it unlikely to have been the cause of such a huge difference.

Though we had to end the program after two years because of funding constraints, its success has led me to continue encouraging students and their families to use web resources for English-instruction at home. The rapidly reducing costs of the Internet and smartphones has made it more realistic that families can study online at home - even without School District help - along with the availability of apps like Duolingo and those from the British Council (see The Best Mobile Apps For English Language Learners).

ELLs Visualizing Success

Much research has documented the success that athletes and others achieve by visualizing themselves succeeding in their chosen fields (see My Best Posts On Helping Students “Visualize Success”). Some research has shown how this practice can specifically benefit English Language Learners.

I've applied this strategy in both my English Language Learner and English-proficient classes. I've done short guided experiences where they regularly visualize being great readers, writers, and speakers (and imagine people praising them for it) twice-a-day for thirty or so seconds each. It’s voluntary, though everyone has to be silent and motionless during that time. Typically, about forty percent of the students in my "regular" ninth-grade class say they’re doing it, while seventy percent in my Intermediate English class say they are...

I had students complete, and carefully monitored, pre-and-post assessments the first year I had students try out this kind of practice. In that year, all the ELLs who said they participated in the visualizations registered similar gains in those assessments. However, everyone who did not participate actually had declines. The English-proficient students all registered gains, though those who did not use visualization techniques improved less.

Of course, these results might very well just be correlations, and not have anything to do with not doing visualization. The students doing the visualization might be harder workers in general than those who are not, or some of the students not doing visualization might have been feeling ill during the post-assessment— there could be many factors at play.

Since that first year, I have used visualization off-and-on. Though research results from the first year are not conclusive, one thing that is clear is that this practice can produce a calming effect on students. And, to tell you the truth, often that result is worth far more to me and the class than any explicit connection to direct language-learning.

Using Technology To Teach Social Studies In School

I'm a long-time advocate of using technology to assist language-development, and a fair amount of research supports its use with English Language Learners (see The Best Places To Find Research On Technology & Language Teaching/Learning).

Several years ago I had the opportunity to personally test out the hypothesis that technology can benefit ELLs in school. I taught two United States History classes, comprised entirely of ELLs - one period took place entirely in our school's computer lab while the other class spent the entire year in our classroom with very minimal technology.

The results were surprising to me (you can read all the information and see copies of the assessment instruments at Results From My Year-Long U.S. History Tech Experiment). Both classes registered similar gains in history content knowledge. However, though both groups liked their classes, the non-tech students gave their course much higher marks in what might be considered "engagement factors" like enjoying the class, saying they learned a lot about U.S. History and wanting to learn more about it in the future.

This experiment was done eight years ago, and I like to think that my skills as a classroom teacher and at using tech have improved considerably (not to mention advancement in the tech tools available). If and when I have a similar opportunity to try this experiment again, I would do also do two major things differently:

* I wish I had given a straight pre-and post-assessment on English comprehension.  Based on the data from our family literacy home computer project (see the first example in this article), I would have expected that those in the computer lab would have had a greater increase in understanding English, though I might very well have been proven wrong.

* I would have put more time into figuring-out how the tech class could have connected more with our International Sister Classes. We started out strong in that regard — for example, students were corresponding with an EFL class in Spain to learn how the Spanish Conquest of the New World was taught in that country — but ended up succumbing to the impulse of having to “cover the curriculum” and those connections fell by the wayside.

I'm confident that those kinds of projects would have - at the very least - increased levels of student engagement. In fact, I can say that with certainty because I have carried this lesson into many of my future classes where we'd done countless projects with classes around the world (see Links To The Joint Projects My ELL Geography Class Did With Classes Around The World ). The levels of student interest in these sister class relationships are through the roof!

How have you used teach action research to improve your teaching? And/Or how would you like apply it in the future?


Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written eight books on education, include three on teaching English Language Learners, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes  regular posts for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.

Larry Ferlazzo

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