Netta Avineri, Assistant Professor of TESOL at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, offers a step-by-step guide to conducting research in the language classroom.
All language teachers are researchers – coming up with questions about our teaching, trying things out, reflecting, and making ongoing changes in response to various factors. Research is engagement in inquiry with the goal of understanding a phenomenon in the world through the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data. This article will give you the basics so you can ACE the research process – conducting research that is Applicable (to your language classroom), Collaborative (integrating you into a teacher-researcher community practice), and Empowering (for you and the participants in your research).
Why conduct research in your language classroom?
Engaging in research allows you to learn about a range of perspectives on the issues you’re interested in. Research can allow you to have a clear rationale for your teaching choices. Conducting research can have a direct, relevant impact on your classroom, your students, and your teaching. It can also help you to refine your teaching philosophy and pedagogical approach. In addition, research provides you with an opportunity to become part of a teacher-researcher community of practice, which provides you with connections and networks upon which to depend and to which you can contribute.
For more information on action research see: www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/action-research
Here I present the 11 steps to conducting research in your language classroom, so you can get a clear sense of the what, how, and why of the research process. Throughout every step of the research process, it is essential to be sensitive to the four Rs of ethics (the Reasons, Roles, Responsibilities, and Relationships central to your research). You can use these steps like a ‘to-do’ list throughout your process of inquiry.
1. Area of interest
The first step in research is deciding what you’re interested in finding out more about – an area of interest or a topic – which can stem from questions you ask yourself about your students and your pedagogical approaches. Some examples of areas of interest are interaction in asynchronous learning environments, error correction, and focus on form in grammar teaching.
Some questions we may consider:
- Sociolinguistic topics (e.g. which language variety should I use/teach in class?)
- Linguistic matters (e.g. how helpful is it to give students vocabulary lists?)
- Methodological concerns (e.g. should I focus on fluency or accuracy?)
- Classroom management (e.g. how often should I put students in groups?)
Make sure to choose a topic that interests you and that is relevant to your language classroom context.
2. Literature review
The next step is conducting a literature review, so you can have a sense of what relevant academic fields are saying about your topic of interest. This will give you a picture of the state of the field and the kinds of methods that researchers use to conduct research on similar topics to yours, and allows you to see what gaps exist in the literature (i.e. which areas of inquiry still need to be explored). Cast a wide net when conducting the literature review by including peer-reviewed academic articles and books, blogs, documentaries, reports, institutional materials, and personal communication. The literature review process includes six steps: understanding, organizing, dialoguing/critiquing, synthesizing, reporting, and becoming (part of the literature). Once you have conducted your literature review you will have a clear sense of topics and themes in relevant fields.
3. Research questions
The next step is creating research questions, which are the guiding questions for your inquiry. Your research questions should be specific, empirical (data-based), and answerable. These questions can be inductive (open-ended) or deductive (closed-ended). An example of an inductive research question would be: ‘How do students respond when I use their first languages (L1s) in the classroom setting?’ An example of a deductive research question would be ‘When teachers engage in error correction by rephrasing beginning-level Mandarin students’ utterances during class, do the students disengage?’ Throughout the remaining steps of the research process, it is important to remain accountable to your research question, so that you collect, analyze, and interpret data that can answer your question.
4. Research design
Once you have crafted your research question you will select an appropriate research design. For example, if your research question is focused on teacher-student interactions it may be necessary to use classroom observations, field notes, video recordings, and/or transcripts. If your research question is focused on students’ perceptions of teaching methods it may be necessary to conduct focus groups, interviews, and/or questionnaires. It is essential for your research question to be intimately connected with the data collection methods you select.
5. Data collection
You will then begin collecting your data. Examples of data collection approaches are questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, reflections, case studies, ethnography, and visual data. Data collection involves multiple steps and considerations:
A. Selecting a sample population, which involves determining who will be part of the research and why, and interacting with them.
B. Piloting, which means trying out your data collection instruments, getting feedback, and making changes before distributing them to your entire sample.
C. Collecting qualitative data, which can be observed.
D. Collecting quantitative data, which can be measured.
6. Data analysis
Once you have collected your data you will begin data analysis, which involves making sense of your data and looking for patterns/themes across the dataset. For qualitative data (e.g. interview responses, observations) this will involve interpretive data analysis, and for quantitative data (e.g. responses to Likert Scale questions, test scores) this may involve statistical analysis.
When you have engaged in in-depth data analysis you will identify your findings – the main nuggets of information you have discovered based on themes (synthetic connection points) across the data.
Data analysis is ’data-close’, which involves looking closely at what your data tells you. Interpretation moves beyond the data itself to inferences, hunches, and intuition. The process of interpretation also allows you to connect your findings with what you found in the literature review, to see how your research contributes in unique ways to the field and pedagogical practices.
Based on your identification of findings along with your interpretation you can then build an argument, a discourse intended to persuade other members of your community of practice. This overarching argument will include material from a variety of sources to create a story about your data and participants. The most convincing arguments have sufficient data/evidence to back them up. At this stage, you will also want to return to your research question to make sure you have answered it!
10. Pedagogical implications
As language teachers, we want to be sure that our research is applicable to our own classrooms and hopefully to other teachers’ classrooms too. Therefore, at this stage you can identify the pedagogical implications of your research. This is your opportunity to ask yourself: ‘What should I do with my research results?’ Implications are more actionable and believable when based upon rigorous, thorough, and well-done research. In general, these implications are based on questions that include can or should (e.g. ‘Should I recast utterances for my beginning-level Mandarin students?’). These implications can be shared with others in your community of practice as well.
11. Sharing your findings
Now that you have gone through the previous ten steps of the research process you can share your findings, interpretations, argument, and implications. You may share your research in the form of articles, conference presentations, professional development workshops, research reports, departmental faculty meeting reports, listservs, and social media – to continuously build our communities of practice (e.g. English as a Foreign Language, Learner Autonomy, Technology; www.connectededucators.org, www.eslcafe.com). This process of sharing involves identifying the relevant what, how, and why of our research for different audiences. It can also include giving and receiving relevant feedback as we continue to refine our research stories.
Engaging in applicable research can be empowering and collaborative. Research doesn’t always go as planned (just like our language lessons!), but the process of inquiry can create new possibilities for exploration into meaningful language pedagogy for both teachers and students.
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This article is based on Research Methods for Language Teaching by Netta Avineri. To find out more about the book and to buy a copy, click here. Download the sample below, to read the first chapter.
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Applied linguistics: Research methods for language teaching