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Action research: how it can help your EFL classroom

cathryn-lavery-67852Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

A classic model of teacher development involves learning about the latest ideas on our practice, and applying them to our classrooms.

Action Research takes the opposite approach. In this process we find out what happens in our own classrooms so that we can understand them better and so make better-informed teaching decisions.  In other words, the teacher carries out the research, and if necessary as a result of what they find out, identifies possible strategies to engage with the reality.

It is different from scientific research. It doesn’t try to come to universally applicable conclusions or models of action. If you conduct an action research project, you know from the outset that you’re only looking at your own specific classroom. Any actions you take as a result are appropriate only to that classroom. Of course, it’s useful to share your experiences with your colleagues but this is more to give them ideas to explore their own classes rather than recommending particular courses of action.

Here is a five-stage model for a simple action research project.

  1. Finding the focus

First you need to identify the question you want to answer.

  • Try not to be too general. For example, the question ‘how can I improve my students motivation?’ could have many different answers. But don’t be too narrow in your focus.  If your question is ‘which students like reading activities?’ then the research will be quite short, and what you’ll be able to do with the information will be very limited.
  • Try to make your question as factual as possible. If you ask ‘why are my students so lazy in groupwork?’  Your research will be just be confirming what you already think.  If you change that to ‘what do my students do during groupwork activities?’  Then you will be not only finding out more about reality but also testing your own opinions.
  1. Identifying the tools
  • You need to do decide what information you’re looking for. This will then give you an idea of where to find it and how to find it. If you look at the question about students in groupwork activities (see above), the information we are looking for is factual, and will probably be best obtained through observing the students during the lesson. So you could use a video camera, you could ask a colleague to come in and observe, or you could do it yourself. All of these have advantages and disadvantages. If you use a camera or colleague, then you will probably need more than one lesson as students needs to become accustomed to the activity in order not to be affected by it too much.  If you do it yourself you’ll need to set it up to give yourself sufficient space and time to do so.
  • Ideally you will get information from more than one source to give you a full picture. So here in addition to the observation, you could also interview your students, or even set this up as a language learning activity during a lesson. In addition to observations, videos, and interviews, other tools include questionnaires (which are useful for larger groups), focus groups (for discovering opinions), or personal journals (which are useful for tracking changes over time).
  1. Carrying out the research
  • Try to carry out the research in away that minimizes any negative impact on the learning itself. For this reason involving colleagues to come and record data is so useful. Obviously it’s important that they do this in away that does not interfere in the lesson.
  • It’s a good idea to carry out the research in ways that will offer you as much information as possible. If you are focusing on one particular class, then consider obtaining data during different lessons rather than just one.  If you are focusing on a particular activity, then consider researching the activity with different groups.
  • It’s a good idea to record any factors that may influence the information you gain, such as the proximity of an exam or a holiday, for example, as this will help you in the next stage when you analyse the data.
  1. Analysing the information
  • In the analysis stage you try to make sense of the information you have obtained. There are a number of thinking processes you can use to help you do this.
  • What categories of data can you find?
  • What themes or patterns can you spot? What does this tell you about the relationships within the data? Are there any causes and responses?
  • Are there any pieces of information which are very different to the rest? How do you account for this?
  • Is there anything that is unexpected? Does this alter any opinions you may have had?
  • It’s extremely useful to involve a colleague in the analysis stage. Thinking critically like this is often easier when discussing ideas with someone else. Make sure, however, that you avoid just sharing your opinions. Try to focus on asking questions and using the data to find your answers.
  1. Taking action

Having gained a better understanding of what is going on in the class, it’s common to take some form of action in response. This section is usually one of three kinds:

  • Further research: Your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation.
  • Change your attitude: It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in the way you see things as a teacher.
  • Implement a new strategy: Often, however, when we research classrooms, we decide to try something new as a result. Perhaps we decide our students need more support for group work activities. Perhaps we need to make them easier, or more difficult. We might decide to alter seating patterns so that different students work with each other.  Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of constant investigation into what’s going on in our classrooms.


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Coming of Age as a Teacher

Teacher in classroomAnna Parisi is course tutor and materials designer for teacher development courses at ACCESS, in Greece. Anna has extensive experience in syllabus design and producing supplementary materials for private language institutions in Greece. Ahead of her webinars on 27th and 28th January, she gives us a preview of what she will be talking about…

I envy new teachers!

When you are a new teacher, everything you do is new. While ‘learning the ropes’, you constantly take risks and experiment, evaluate and take decisions. There are so many surprises: your students surprise you, you surprise yourself. It can be highly stressful but exciting because it’s an on-going process of observation and discovery.

We call this ‘enthusiasm’.

And then, routine starts settling in. We know we have to cover the curriculum no matter what, finish the book, and after so much trial and error we know what works best ( well, most of the time) so why take risks?  We change our routines when something goes seriously wrong or when we are bored out of our wits.

We call this ‘experience’.

Occasionally, both enthusiastic new teachers and experienced old-hands attend conferences, listen to experts and take notes. Later, we may use 1 or 2 ideas in class but generally we find ’there is no time’, ‘you can’t do this in the real world’ as real students often respond in a different way to what we want them to.

We also share fabulous ideas and photographs on the social media; we follow gurus and mentors online in search of general truths and successful practices. But still most of our issues in the classroom remain unresolved, and out of date or over-demanding curricula remain in place.

In the meantime, there is so much that goes unacknowledged, devalued or ignored: teachers’ tacit knowledge, the knowledge that teachers have acquired through the years but find it difficult to articulate or transmit.

While PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) have helped in this respect with sharing lots of ideas, thoughts and insights, teaching lives as depicted online have left a lot feeling they are missing out on developments or even with undeserved feelings of inadequacy. This wealth of ideas from teachers, trainers, authors is a host of wonderful recipes but not a better diet overall.

The gap between theory and practice remains as large as ever, published material sometimes seems to come from a parallel universe, and although everything takes place for the good of students, they are not part of the decision making and are not even asked what they think some or most of the time.

For teachers to take control and have greater professional responsibility over what we do, small scale teacher-led research is the next step in teacher development.

Why research?

Research is by definition questioning, challenging preconceptions, discovering, experimenting. Teacher-led research is action taking place where the action is: in the EFL classroom. If we, teachers, would like to see change and improvement then we are the best placed to initiate and undertake it. If we want greater autonomy, we will have to seek and welcome greater responsibility.

If we believe that we, teachers, should be involved in curricula change then we ‘need to take a critical and experimental approach to our classrooms’ (Nunan 1989). Solutions to practical problems in the classroom can rarely be imported from outside the classroom. It’s the teacher who is best placed to investigate and resolve issues by taking some course of action.  By researching our own classes we can better understand our own classroom procedures. We can become better able to assess what actually happens in the classroom as opposed to our own assumptions about what happens.  Teacher-led, classroom based research also means consulting our students, understanding and catering for their differences.

But what does teacher-led classroom based research involve?

Carrying out research should be a collective project, not a solitary task.  It’s really about discovering, sharing and transmitting knowledge, problem-solving. It’s an integral part of teacher development. Carrying out such a project can be a collective experience inclusive of all teachers in all stages of professional development. Teachers being part of this experience is the heart of a collective, teacher-led research project.

In the upcoming webinar, we’ll look at some of the basics of teacher-led classroom based research and how it can transform our teaching lives. You’ll be surprised! You can register for the webinar here.

References

Nunan, D.  and Bailey, K.M. 2008 . Exploring Second Language Classroom Research : A Comprehensive Guide. Boston: Heinle

Nunan, D. 1989. Understanding Language Classrooms . Cambridge : Prentice Hall International


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So you think you can write?

Close up of pen on paperEver thought about writing your own teaching materials? Stephen Greene is an English language teacher, teacher trainer, and materials developer. Here, he takes us through the process he undertook to write his first published materials.

I have always written materials for my students. My first job was in a school in Poland where we had a grand total of two resource books to help us. The fact the course books we had ordered didn’t turn up until almost the end of the first term meant that we had very little choice but to get creative.

There are many reasons why we occasionally need to look outside the course book, but for me one of the main reasons is just the fun and the interest of doing it. I simply love writing for my students.

When OUP offered me the chance to co-write the Teacher’s Pack for Cambridge English Proficiency Masterclass with Jeanette Lindsey-Clark, I jumped at the chance. I thought to myself that all I would have to do was replicate my endeavours over the last 15 years, but on a grander scale. I could write a book, no problem. It turned out that I had a lot to learn.

Doing your research

Normally, I just wrote. I knew my students, my syllabus and my course book. I knew the strengths and weaknesses of all of them. If there was something lacking, and I felt inspired, I would sit down at my computer and write something to make up for it.

But when writing on this project I had to study. I needed to study the brief from the publisher in detail. I had to go through the Student’s Book to understand how it had been put together and the methodology that the author had used. I also had to check the changes in the Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE) exam and ensure I understood what the new questions demanded from the candidates. And all of this before I could even start doing any writing.

Constrained creativity

A number of times I had a great idea and spent some time developing it only to realise that it didn’t fit the criteria I was supposed to be working to. I found this to be one of the more difficult aspects of writing for somebody else; coming up with ideas wasn’t the hard part. Instead, coming up with ideas that fit the requirements of the project constrained and restricted my creativity. After a while, though, this restriction actually led to a better focus.

Being disciplined

The romantic image I had of sitting down at my computer and letting the creative juices flow through me to the screen just didn’t happen. Or at least, when it did happen it was as a result of being very disciplined and working through the times when I just couldn’t think of what I was supposed to write about. Balancing writing with teaching, family and having some sort of life isn’t easy so I often had to force myself to stay up until the early hours of the morning to keep to schedule.

Deadline is king

One of my favourite (non-ELT) writers, Douglas Adams, had a thing about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

This might be fine for a famous author, but for the likes of me, struggling to even get one book published, this was never going to be possible. If there is one thing that is going to make an editor angry with you and so not invite you back to the party it is to miss a deadline. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances.

The results

Despite the hard work and the steep learning curve the whole process was worth every minute. I learned an incredible amount about the publishing process and I believe this has made me a better teacher because I clearer insight as to why certain things have been selected in course books.

The discipline, focus and awareness of objectives have also improved the writing I do for my students and I feel sure that my personal materials are of a much higher standard now. I am a much better writer now, but I know I still have a lot more to learn.

This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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How to Teach English Infographic

Over at Kaplan International, they’ve been finding out how people learn English.

They surveyed more than 500 ESL teachers from around the world to discover what tools they use to enhance their lessons.

Take a look at the results in this infographic, originally posted on the Kaplan blog.

Do the results surprise you? Leave a comment below.

How to Teach English Inforgraphic


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Not Digital ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

Laptop on legs on the grassMany of us have heard of the so-called Digital Natives / Immigrants divide (if not, read Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?). In this post, David White, a researcher at Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), an award-winning e-learning research and development group in the University of Oxford, introduces us to an alternative distinction: that of Digital Visitors and Residents.

At TALL, we have been taking a close look not at what technologies our students use but at how they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants – i.e. this distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies, it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students’ appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on whether they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have a persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc. The Resident will, of course, interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study, and for recreation. In fact, the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

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