Category: Research

Help! Overwhelmed by research!

This is a short, rather personal post; a bit of a call for help! In my head, thoughts are flying around: researching, compiling bibliographies, literature reviews, not having enough time in the day to read everything properly, wasting time reading the ‘wrong’ things, and feeling swapmed and out-of-touch with the latest state of affairs…. And this is going to (hopefully) be an outlet that gets these thoughts out of my head and onto “paper” so that I can concentrate… Oh, and maybe get some tips from readers while I’m at it!!

IMAG0494
What my brain feels like. An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015. 

 

So, I like to think that I’m pretty good at keeping up with the research regarding my areas of ELT. I subscribe to a couple of journals, am active on twitter and I read lots of blogs, so I feel like I’m in touch with big debates and what’s generally going on in the ELT world. 

But now I’m trying to get together some of the ‘best’ literature on the topic of correcting (EAP) students’ writing. I want to summarise the main work and findings in this area. But there is JUST SO MUCH!! I’ve got some key names and some meta-study articles have also been helpful. But I feel like I might be missing out on some other definitive contributions, key strands of work, relevant studies, contaversial issues, etc.  When I search my university’s library databases, the lists are endless of articles on peer review, using technology, to correct or not to correct, learner autonomy, and so on and on and on.

I can’t possibly read everything. I thought about reading through the Works Cited lists and trying to find sources that seem to be cited a lot… but even that would be so much work. 

And I wonder how anyone ever manages to keep up with it all. Whenever I think I’ve “finished” and have a suitable bibliography together, so another blog post alerts me to a new perspective on the discussion, or Google Scholar pops up with a few hundred more published articles… When is enough enough? When can I stop? It’s never going to be  truly finished, is it?!

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Action Research – What and how?

Action Research – What and how?

Many schemes of professional development for teachers, as well as advanced teaching certificates, include an element of ‘Action Research’ (AR). In my work as a team leader of EFL tutors, I’ve come to see just how important AR is for teachers to continue to develop and professionalise their teaching practices. And I’m so enthusiastic about teachers doing research that I want to share some introductory thoughts with a wider audience – with you, my dear blog readers! I hope I can inspire you to start your own AR projects, and would love to hear what you get up to!

So what is ‘Action Research’ for teachers? Basically,  AR is any small scale research conducted by a practising teacher which looks at any aspect of how a class is run, and is particularly aimed at answering a question or addressing a difficult or controversial issue. The results of the research can then be used by the teacher (and colleagues if the results are shared) to inform future practice and to suggest solutions to any problems or puzzles caused by the controversial issues/questions.

With this definition, ‘action research’ can be broken down into the following concrete phases: 

  1. formulation of research question, 
  2. background reading (optional), 
  3. developing (and maybe piloting, or evaluating with colleagues) a method of data collection, 
  4. data collection,
  5. collating & analysing data, 
  6. reflection & drawing conclusions. 

Once conclusions have been drawn, these can lead to the formulation of a consequent action plan or changes in teaching practice, and/or the dissemination of the research findings.

These phases may make AR sound like a very time-consuming and serious experimental endeavour, but it really isn’t!! An AR project can be as large and time-consuming, or as quick and small, as the teacher wants it to be. Most of the time, you can ‘research’ whilst teaching. You start with something you’d like to find out, change something minor in your teaching, and reflect on the outcome. The research question could focus on a local issue connected to one specific class or school, such as getting shy learners to speak more, dealing with unruly behaviour, encouraging more engagement with homework tasks, or trialling things like project-based learning, peer-review etc. You could trial a new technique to investigate possible & necessary adaptations for particular teaching contexts. You might also want to try combining ideas from published sources and developing a new technique which could then be shared with others. Often, I’ve found informal staffroom chats highlight potential AR topics, so just keep your ears open!

The ‘how’ question can seem a big deal, especially if calling it ‘data collection’ reminds you of big scientific investigations! But in AR, you can choose any way to gather information that is relevant to your research question. It could be as straightforward as keeping a journal of your lessons and your reflections on them, or maybe asking to sit in on a colleague’s lesson to see how they approach a certain issue, or even asking your students to give you their opinions on certain aspects of the classroom/lesson setup. The key thing is reflecting on what you find out and how you can apply it to your teaching!

If you are approaching AR for the first time, you might like to talk through your ideas with a colleague who’s done some AR before, or collaborate with another colleague to emphasise the reflective nature of AR. I would also love to hear about your AR projects and can mentor you through the process, if you wish – just comment below or send me a message on Twitter, I’m @Clare2ELT.

What I really love about AR is that it can open up dialogue among teachers! That’s why I’d love for you to get in touch, and would also encourage any teacher who has conduced AR to share their findings publicly, e.g. on a blog or in a teaching magazine or newsletter.

Here are some other links and blog posts that are worth a look, if you’re interesting in finding out more about AR:

British Council: Exploring our own classroom practice.

Nellie Mueller: Action Research Projects

#BridgingtheGapChallenge – Coping with Academic Reading

**GUEST POST**

As part of the #BridgingtheGapChallenge, here is a summary of: Hirano, Biana. ‘I read, I don’t understand’: refugees coping with academic reading. ELT Journal, Vol. 69/2, April 2015: 178-187. written by my dear colleague Carol Ebbert!

This study collected data over two semesters via interviews, class observations and written documents on seven refugee students who despite not being ‘college ready’ were attending a small liberal arts college in the USA in order to identify coping strategies they developed to deal with academic reading.

Findings
Overall, the students found many aspects of academic reading at the college level challenging. They were expected to read independently and to be able to apply what they had read, not just recite facts from the readings. The amount of reading was also challenging, as well as the language issues they had, often relating to vocabulary and older texts (such as Shakespeare or texts from the 18th and 19th century). Finally, many felt that they had insufficient background knowledge to understand the texts fully.

The students developed several strategies to cope with the readings, which included relying on the lectures and PowerPoint slides in lieu of completing the reading either because they did not see the readings as important, it was too complex, or they lacked time. They also employed selective reading strategies such as skimming, reading according to the PowerPoint slides, or reading according to the study guides (i.e. using either the PowerPoint slides or study guides to help them identify which sections of the readings were most important). Finally, they also worked on finding places that were conducive to reading, read with peers, used a dictionary while reading, reread texts after lectures, sought tutor support and asked professors when they had specific questions after reading.

These strategies had different levels of usefulness. After the first exams, the strategy of relying on the lectures and slides was found to have resulted in poor grades. Rereading texts and reading with dictionaries were considered to be too time-consuming and were therefore rarely done. Other strategies seemed to have helped the students succeed in their courses.

Conclusion
While this research was carried out with refugee students, it can be applied to all students who start higher education while still in the process of learning English. In a broader sense, EAP instructors can use these findings to encourage students to try out various reading strategies and to discuss with their students strategies that may be more effective than others at helping students master the course material and successfully pass assessments.

My Own Thoughts
Reading strategies are perhaps a skill often ignored in EAP teaching, as we perhaps assume that having finished secondary school, students will know strategies for reading (e.g. from reading in their native language) that they can apply to reading in English. This does not always seem to be the case. Students should be made aware of the role of reading in higher education, that they will not be able to rely solely on lecture content, and what strategies exist to help them master the complex texts they are being assigned.

Summary by C. Ebbert, Trier University.

#BridgeingtheGapChallenge: The role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction

Guest post by Don Watson

Based on 

de la Fuente, M. J. (2006). Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction. Language Teaching Research 10, 3. pp. 263–295. Retrieved from: http://www.lrc.cornell.edu/events/past/2006-2007/fuentes.pdf

I assume anyone reading this blog has at least heard of Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT). But as with any approach/method etc. the thing we all, as teachers, want to know is: Does it work and how do I use it best? The study Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction attempts to answer this question when using TBLT to teach vocabulary.

Interestingly, this study also addresses another age old ELT question of (when) is it ok to talk about the language. It’s pretty well agreed that classroom interaction should be predominantly communicative in nature i.e. we use the language we are trying to teach in order to communicate, but when is it ok to explicitly discuss things like grammar or vocab. The study calls this a “focus on form” and cites Swain to argue that if learners notice certain aspects of the language they are exposed to and then compare this with their own language production, then language acquisition is more likely.

Ok, great. Let’s focus on form. But, as always, there is a but. This being a journal article, however, there is actually a however (see Lockman & Swales, 2010). And here it is: “Skehan (1998), however, remarks that it is not advisable to intervene during tasks.” He suggests that it is preferable to “intervene” after the task is complete as then it is more likely that “form–meaning relationships and pattern identification are not transitory… but are still available for attention and so more likely to be integrated into a growing interlanguage system”.

So now we have an idea of what to do and when to do it, so how does this study help? The authors describe the study as a “classroom-based, quasi-experimental study,” focusing on, second language “oral productive vocabulary acquisition of word meanings and forms”. As it’s an experiment there is a control and experimental group. In this case the “control group” is a traditional PPP (that’s Presentation, Practice and Production just in case you don’t know) lesson. So I guess in this case the PPP stands for PPPlacebo. No, that’s mean; let’s stick with “control”. So they compare a traditional PPP lesson with two versions of a Task based lesson. The first task was “a one-way, role-play, information-gap task with a planned focus on form and meaning. The task required students to use the target lexical forms while keeping attention to meaning, in order to achieve the goal of ordering food from a restaurant’s menu”. The second Task based lesson had the same first two stages as the first task based lesson, however, instead of a task repetition, “a teacher generated, explicit focus-on-forms stage was incorporated”. The “focus-on-forms” stage was designed “to explicitly clarify morphological, phonological and spelling issues.”

The study then tested the students’ ability to “retrieve” the target vocabulary immediately after the lesson and again one week after the lesson. No statistically significant difference was found for the immediate retrieval of words (although the Task based lessons were better, just not better enough) however after one week, the Task based lessons did produce significantly better results. The authors suggest that this is “due to the fewer opportunities for targeted output production and retrieval that PPP lessons offer, and to its inability to effectively focus students’ attention on targeted forms”.

And as we know, learning vocabulary is much more than simply learning the definition of a word. And this is where the real advantage of this Task+Focus-on-Form idea is because it results in “not only acquisition of the words’ basic meaning, but also of important formal/morphological aspects of words.”

So the take away from all this is: If you’re doing tasks, and I guess most of us are, don’t interrupt the task and be sure to explicitly clarify the target language after the task is complete.

References

de la Fuente, M. J. (2006). Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction. Language Teaching Research 10, 3. pp. 263–295. Retrieved from: http://www.lrc.cornell.edu/events/past/2006-2007/fuentes.pdf

Lockman & Swales (2010). Sentence Connector Frequencies in Academic Writing (and Academic Speech).  Retrieved from: http://www.readbag.com/micusp-elicorpora-files-0000-0253-sentence-connector-kibbitzer-1

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford University Press.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C., editors, Input in second language acquisition. Newbury House, 235–53.

#BridgingtheGapChallenge Hand-Written vs Emailed Corrective Feedback on Writing

As part of the #BridgingtheGapChallenge, here is a summary of:

Farshi, S.S. & S.K. Safa, ‘The Effect of Two Types of Corrective Feedback on EFL Learners’ Writing Skill’, Advances in Language and Literary Studies, Vol 6/1, February 2015.

This study aimed to compare the effectiveness of giving hand-written or electronic (via email) feedback on EFL learners’ written work.

Participants & Procedure

Thirty-five adult participants were involved in the stud; Azeri-Turkish speakers, who were learning English at a language institute in Iran. They were divided into three separate class groups, which met twice a week for 7 weeks and taught by the same teacher. All groups covered the same material in class and were given a writing task each week based on the lesson’s focus. Depending on which group participants they were in, they received feedback on their work in a different format: Group A: Submitted paper-versions of their work and received hand-written feedback. Group B: Submit their work by email and received their feedback electronically. Group C: Submitted their work either on paper or by email, but received no feedback from the teacher. Groups A and B revised their paragraphs using the feedback they received. Before the study, students completed pre-test writing tasks (writing two separate paragraphs), graded by three teachers, and the KET proficiency test and were found to have comparable levels of proficiency in English. They post-test score was also based on two written paragraphs, graded by three teachers. The pre-test and post-test scores were given in numerical format, on a scale from 0-20 (where 20 is good).

Findings

A paired-samples T-test (test of significant difference) was used to compare participants’ pre-test and post-test scores. On the pre-test scores, there was no significant difference between the three groups. On the post-test scores (i.e. the grades students achieved on the assessment after having received the various feedbacks on their work for 7 weeks), both Group A’s and Group B’s scores were significantly higher than those of Group C, who had received no corrective feedback on their writing. The researchers conclude that both hand-written and electronic feedback therefore have a positive impact on students’ writing skill. The key finding, though, is the significant difference between the improvements shown by participants in Groups A and B; where Group B (who had received electronic feedback) scored significantly higher than Group A (hand-written feedback), which would seem to show that feedback received electronically is more effective at improving students’ writing than hand-written feedback is.

My Own Thoughts

I can postulate various explanations for the benefit of giving feedback electronically: it feels more personal to the students, the teacher can perhaps include more detailed feedback, it is motivating for students to use their electronic devices for the English learning, etc. It would have been interesting to see what the researchers thought were the explanations for their findings.

It would also be good to know what kind of level their learners were at in their English proficiency – perhaps the effectiveness of certain feedback formats depends on level?

And also, what kind of feedback exactly was given – actual corrections? simply underlining? Comments to start a dialogue? Use of a correction code? I wonder whether these differences might have an even more significant effect on students’ improvement than simply the mode of delivery of the feedback?

#BridgingTheGapChallenge: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Teachers

There is SO MUCH research going on into language teaching methods, approaches, etc. But the sad fact is, it has turned into a big jumble of research strands, hard to untangle and find the right connections!
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.

Let’s be honest, how many classroom teachers have access to it? And time to read and digest it all? Probably very few! SO where do teachers get their inspiration and lesson ideas? Well, online a lot of the time. And so I came up with a blog idea, which will hopefully turn in to a challenge which lots of people participate in… #BridgingTheGapChallenge

THE CHALLENGE: Teachers or researchers reading this: grab (or click on!) one ELT-related journal you have access to. Read one article that interests you, and post a quick, readable summary for other teachers to read, who are too busy to read the full article or do not have access to that journal or magazine! 

The aim is for us to build up a nice bank of summaries that are easy to access and bridge the gap between published research and classroom practitioners!

You can post the link to your blog post in the comments section below, or tweet your blog posts @Clare2ELT or with the #BridgingTheGapChallenge  If you don’t have your own blog, please feel free to add your summary to the comments below, or send it to me and I’ll publish it as a guest post on my blog! 🙂

Let the bridge-building begin!