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Basic research in English language teaching
We are always trying to 1) figure out how something works, 2) why something went wrong, or 3) what might happen if we tried something a certain way. It’s in our DNA, and we can’t help it! In teaching a language, our inquisitive nature manifests everyday when we investigate how the language works, how to use the best teaching techniques, or how to understand why things we’ve done in the classroom may not have gone as planned. This is research in its purest, most basic form and in essence, we are all “researchers”; we all have discovered something important in our language teaching classrooms and we all have had something valuable to share with our colleagues. The problem is sometimes teachers hear “research” and they say, “Oh no, that’s not for me.” “That’s too complicated.” “That’s for university professors.” I’ve heard some of these statements with my very own ears, and they’re simply not true! Research is accessible to everyone. This post will define in broad terms what role research in a language classroom plays, how our research can inform our teaching practice and lastly what different avenues teachers can take to share their work.
What is research and why do it?
To begin I’d like to clarify that there is “Research” (capital “R”), and then there’s “research” (lowercase “r”). “Research” as concerned with scientists and applied linguists involves a very meticulous and rigorous set of procedures aimed at presenting a study’s findings (that are deemed reliable and valid) to an academic audience. This is highly specialized and requires a great degree of training. It tends to be very theoretical but can also have some practical implications/applications in the language classroom. Then there’s “research”, inquiries that originate from a teacher based on his/her observations and that he/she investigates further in order to draw some logical conclusions. These findings may not necessarily be presented to an academic audience (though they very well may; it’s really up to the teacher how far he/she pursues public dissemination of the results), but are rather intended to help the teacher make informed, evidence-based decisions about how to more effectively run his/her class.
We will be more concerned with “research” for this short post and we will regard it broadly as involving: “1) question(s) to be answered, 2) systematic collection of data, 3) analysis of data [and] 4) answer(s) to the question(s)” (Smith & Rebodello, 2018, p.16). One common research method utilized in language teaching that you might have heard of is “action research”, defined as “systematically collecting data on your everyday practice and analyzing it in order to come to some decisions about what your future practice should be” (Wallace, 1998, pg. 4). In essence, both research definitions explain that you as a teacher reflect on and observe what’s happening in your classroom, record information to serve as evidence, analyze it with the goal of answering questions that you have come up with and finally think about how those results might help you modify your current teaching practices. Because we don’t have a lot of space to go into the procedural details of action research, I highly suggest you read 1) “A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research” by Richard Smith and Paula Rebolledo (courtesy of our very own here at Teaching English!), and 2) Action Research for Language Teachers by Michael Wallace. They are really fantastic books which give teachers a strong foundation in basic research and provide practical examples of how teachers go about effectively investigating language matters in their classrooms.
My own practical example
I’ll quickly give you a practical example of how I performed an action research study at a medical university I used to work for in Saudi Arabia. As a supervisor of the writing program, I had quite a lot of complaints from students, parents, and teachers alike that the pace of our curriculum was too demanding: that we were asking students to do too much too soon. After the first semester of academic writing, we were requiring that learners use secondary sources, which many students clearly struggled with. Intuitively, I could sense that we were on the wrong track but didn’t have any measurable data to support or confirm my intuition. I decided to design a questionnaire to be given to first year, second year, and post graduate students studying in our writing program, and the questions sought to ascertain 1) how much English writing practice had they had before joining university and 2) how much writing had they done in their own language (Arabic). The results of the questionnaire were shocking; on average not only had they not done much academic writing in English, but they hadn’t done much in their own native language either!
Upon analyzing the results, I presented them to our writing administrators calling for a major revision in our curriculum. If students aren’t very proficient in writing academic English (let alone writing academically in their own language) before joining us, then it was a bit taxing to ask them to jump too soon into secondary source use, a skill that requires a much higher level of writing proficiency. Based on the results of that study, we made major revisions to our curriculum and solved some critical issues for our students. After presenting the results to the writing administrators, I called for a general assembly for all the teachers to give a presentation on the rationale for the simple study and its findings. The results and the ensuing curricular changes were well received at the meeting, and the writing courses ran quite smoothly after the changes were implemented. Thus, the action research process entailed the surfacing of the problem of students’ writing, designing a questionnaire to obtain data, recording and analyzing data, and making suggestions to help improve the program. From my action research, I was not only able to tweak the curriculum nationwide, but in my classroom, I became much more sensitive to students’ writing needs and created many more opportunities for feedback and practice to help develop their writing skills. That wouldn’t have been possible without a study and conclusive data.
Where do we go from here?
As teachers, you have the same research tools at your disposal. If you notice a particular activity isn’t working, or there’s a common linguistic problem shared by your learners, or you’re interested in the efficacy of a new teaching idea, do some research! Get permission to conduct your research from a senior administrator and he/she will probably be very interested in your teaching/learning inquiry and your willingness to improve your teaching. After all, performing research and sharing it with others is an excellent way to professionally develop. Once you’ve gotten the approval, conduct the project in a systematic way making sure you gather documented evidence. After collecting the data, analyze it and look for answers. When you have completed this stage, it’s important to share your new knowledge, and there are many ways to do so. You can form a WhatsApp research group with your colleagues to discuss the results of projects that you’re all involved in, form a research committee in your department and schedule regular workshops, call a meeting and make a formal presentation to the teaching staff, contribute to a schoolwide newsletter, or submit your work (in a highly formalized fashion expecting painstaking hours of revision and critique!) as a manuscript for publication in an academic journal. Whatever format you choose, dissemination of your work is important because chances are other people might be experiencing the same issues that you are facing in the classroom. Presenting your work in a public space helps promote dialogue and discussion about important classroom matters, matters that probably concern many others in your field. At the end of the day, don’t forget that your teaching experiences in the classroom matter and they need to be heard!
Smith, R., & Rebolledo, P. (2018). A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research. London: British Council. Available at https://goo.gl/iWDR5m.
Wallace, M. J. (1998). Action Research for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press.