Recent reforms in French teacher education have led to the creation of new university schools of education (Ecoles Supérieures du Professorat et de l’Education) with masters programmes combining education sciences, disciplinary knowledge, pedagogy and also a research dimension. In the master’s programme in teaching English as a Foreign Language (Master MEEF Anglais), for future secondary EFL teachers, this research strand sits alongside English language and culture, EFL teaching, education theory and ICT. The initiation to research is offered during each of the two years of the programme, which integrates university courses and teaching practice. At Nice University, we designed a programme where an introduction to classroom research is connected with the two first-year teaching placements, which occur alongside university courses preparing for secondary school entrance exams (CAPES). In the second year, students conduct research projects in relation to the more extensive teaching practice involving university lecturers, secondary school practitioners and teacher educators.
The objective of the research component of the master’s programme is to help students understand
- how language is learned in classroom environments, and
- how teaching affects the process and outcomes.
This post offers background on second language classroom research for university lecturers and secondary practitioners to inform second year student research projects. We begin with a brief discussion of current second language research, followed by a presentation of the action research framework recommended for master’s research projects, and finally some of the the wider implications and future directions for this work are considered.
Classroom research in ELT
Second language teaching research
The learning and teaching of foreign or second languages has been the object of research in a number of different disciplines. Second language acquisition research in the field of linguistics is often dated to early work on learner language and learner errors in the 1970s (Corder, 1967; Selinker, 1972). It is also often associated with experimental designs using test and control groups, and statistical analyses, in order to test the effect of particular aspects of the learning environment on language learning, for instance. In language education, on the other hand, researchers have used discourse analysis to investigate patterns of language use in the classroom, for example, and to examine how teachers develop their classroom skills. Neither of these types of research seems appropriate to our students, however, because they have little or no training in research methods, and are expected to become classroom language teachers, not researchers.
However, it is possible and worthwhile for our students to conduct a different type of classroom research which can support their developing teaching skills and encourage reflective practice. This in turn may help them become more effective teachers who are able to adapt to new challenges and opportunities throughout their careers.
Action research is frequently attributed to Lewin (1946) and involves the teacher acting as a researcher in his or her own classroom by finding a question (or puzzle, or problem) to investigate, collecting data, analysing and interpreting the data, and then acting on the results, often setting off a new cycles of action research. For example, a language teacher might wonder why some learners in a class seem more motivated to participate in learning activities than others (Ellis, 2013). The teacher would collect data to find out whether this intuitive judgement is correct (e.g., by recording lessons, or making field notes, or perhaps involving the learners themselves), and analysing this data. Then the teacher can consider ways to make changes, and again measure the effect on learners.
Burns has written on this topic for researchers (2005) and for practitioners (2010). She explains the different stages of the action research cycle: plan, act, observe and reflect (2010) and the benefits for teachers and for the field (2005). Cook (2012) has further practical advice for novice researchers at graduate level.
Analysing learner language
To investigate the effects of second language teaching it is important to obtain some kind of measure of classroom activities by collecting and analysing data. Data collection can involve recording class activities or gathering samples of learner productions (spoken or written work). Data analysis then requires studying the learner language in these interactions or productions in a systematic manner (not just assigning grades).
The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA, University of Minnesota) has online materials to support teacher research on learner language. This resource identifies a number of orientations which teachers can adopt to analyse their learners’ language use; perhaps the most accessible are
Students often find data analysis particularly challenging and need support both with the rationale for this and methods of carrying it out. Tarone and Swierzbin (2009) provides a useful framework for this.
Masters research projects
For the research projects to be conducted in the second year of the master’s programme, students can start from a pedagogical question, as in standard action research, or replicate a published classroom study, or conduct a CLIL project.
Choose an article from a journal in the list below which addresses a teaching issue relevant to your learners. Read up on the issue starting with the article’s reference list, and use it as the starting point for your action research cycle.
Choose an article from a journal in the list below which reports on research on an aspect of second language teaching which is relevant to your learners. Conduct a similar study with your learners.
Apply CLIL principles to a teaching unit on a literary theme or cultural notion which is appropriate for your learners. Working with your tutor and any other colleagues, plan and teach the unit, then analyse it using the critical incident technique described in Coyles, Hood and Marsh (2010).
Conducting and writing up research
I suggest the following framework for M2 research projects.
- define a research question (problematisation)
- collect data
- analyse and interpret findings (two AR cycles if possible)
- collaboration among student, school tutor and university tutor on definition of research question, method (classes, data) and analysis
- in English, with French-English glossary
- 20-30 pages (4-6000 words), double-spaced, 12 pt, table of contents, page numbers
- background or literature review
- method (participants, classroom context, data collection)
- references (APA format, as in the present document)
- appendices (lesson plans, research instruments)
- oral defence with tutor(s) and another instructor: 10 minute presentation, 10 minutes for questions
- evaluation on quality of project, write-up and presentation/discussion.
Our work on master’s classroom research projects can contribute to our overall efforts for teacher education in the programme by supporting both novice teachers and their more experienced practitioner tutors. If thoughtfully conceived and carried out, student projects can also contribute to broader research in second (English) language teaching.
With this in mind, it is important for our classroom research to
- draw on relevant recent research by language teachers and teacher educators;
- define reasonable research questions which can be adequately addressed in the time available;
- collect data in an organised and ethically appropriate manner (using participant authorisation forms and anonymising data);
- write up and share findings with peers (past and future graduate students), colleagues (English teachers in the local academy) and stakeholders (inspectors, ESPE, university).
Master’s in Teaching mini-conference
In Nice, we organised a day of Reflections on Classroom Practice in early June for first year students to share their teaching experiences using powerpoint presentations. We invited the students’ tutors and used these presentations as the basis for our grades. We used a similar format for second year student presentations, organised as joint half-day sessions including university and school tutors of all presenters.
Teacher education collaboration
We could also consider ways to build on second year master’s projects in Nice and Toulon by
organising combined research classes online (e.g., via the unice Connect platform)
organising outreach events with practising EFL teachers via inspectors and in-service training programmes
working with recent graduates and newly qualified teachers (T1, T2, T3) to continue professional support and encourage further practical research initiatives
A final dimension to consider is collaborative research into language teacher education in our context. This is one area where I have done research with academic colleagues, graduate students and teachers (Cutrim Schmid & Whyte, 2012; Whyte & Alexander, 2014; Whyte, Cutrim Schmid, van Hazebrouck & Oberhofer, 2013), both in funded projects and independently. We might consider working together in similar ways with the MEEF students and tutors.
Organisations and conferences
Platforms for talks or publications include:
- AFLA (Association Française de Linguistique Appliquée)
- ARDAA (Association pour la Recherche en Didactique de l’Anglais et en Acquisition)
http://www.ardaa.fr/ (colloque SAES (May)
- EuroCALL (European association for Computer Assisted Language Learning)
http://www.eurocall-languages.org/ conference (July/August)
Special Interest Group in Teacher Education*
- GERAS (Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche en Anglais de Spécialité)
http://www.geras.fr/ colloque GERAS (March)
Groupe de Travail sur la Didactique de l’Anglais de Spécialité*
Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching: A guide for practitioners. Routledge.
Burns, A. (2005). Action research: An evolving paradigm?. Language teaching, 38(02), 57-74.
Cook, V. (2012). Starting applied linguistics research. Retrieved 4 July 2014 http://www.academia.edu/4356490/Starting_Applied_Linguistics_Research
Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learner’s errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5(1-4), 161-170.
Coyle, D., Hood, P., & Marsh, D. (2010). The CLIL tool kit: transforming theory into practice. Coyle, D., Hood, P., & Marsh, D., CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning.
Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. Advances in Digital Language Learning and Teaching (Series editors: Michael Thomas, Mark Warschauer & Mark Peterson). Bloomsbury.
Ellis, R. (2013). Interview with Rod Ellis. Language magazine. Retrieved 3 July 2014 http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=3843
Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34-46.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(1-4), 209-232.
Whyte, S., & Alexander, J. (2014). Implementing tasks with interactive technologies in classroom CALL: towards a developmental framework. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 40 (1), 1-26.
Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., van Hazebrouck, S., & Oberhofer, M. (2013). Open educational resources for CALL teacher education: the iTILT interactive whiteboard project. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27 (2), 122-148 doi: 10.1080/09588221.2013.818558
Open access journals
Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics / Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée: http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/index
English Teaching Forum: http://americanenglish.state.gov/english-teaching-forum
The Asian EFL Journal: http://asian-efl-journal.com/
TESL E-J: http://www.tesl-ej.org/
Learner language (CARLA)
Foreign language teaching methods (COERLL)
Spada, N., & Lightbown, P. (2006). How language are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tarone, E., & Swierzbin, B. (2009). Exploring learner language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Internal report, UNS/ESPE Nice
S. Whyte, July 2014