Finding a Viable Research Topic in ELT
Willy A Renandya, 26 April 2022
Finding a viable research topic in ELT or applied linguistics may seem like a mysterious process. Many graduate students or beginning researchers often encounter lots of difficulty.
They don’t know much about what topic is researchable, they are not sure how to find and use resources in the library and the internet, how to find an interesting gap that they can fill, etc.
The process however is not at all mysterious. Once you understand that graduate level research is a literature-supported research study (and not an experience-based research study), the process becomes more straightforward.
Experienced researchers typically go through the following steps as soon as they have decided on a topic.
- Identify the big players associated with that topic and read their most recent publications. If you are thinking of researching vocabulary acquisition, you might need to look up renowned vocabulary researchers such as Paul Nation and Averil Coxhead whose work has inspired hundreds of vocabulary researchers.
- If you are new and can’t think of any big scholars, you can do a search using Google Scholar. For example, if your topic is on feedback in writing, you can type in keywords such as: “written corrective feedback”, or “Grammar feedback in writing”. If you want to narrow down your search, include another important keyword “L2”, “ESL” etc. Top scholars with the most number of citations will usually appear at the top of the Google Scholar list. Examples of big names in the list above might include: Icy Lee, John Bitchener, Dana Ferris, John Truscott, Ken Hyland.
- You may also try to find some meta-analysis articles published by well-known scholars including this one: Lim, S. C., & Renandya, W. A. (2020). Efficacy of Written Corrective Feedback in Writing Instruction: A Meta-Analysis. TESL-EJ, 24(3).
- You might also want to read recently published works by these well-known scholars, preferably one that provides an overview and theoretical discussion of the research. This type of publication, aka review paper or state-of-the-art paper, provides extremely useful information about what researchers have learned and what else they need to learn vis a vis the topic. This is how you can identify the gap in the existing body of the literature.
- The next 3 to 4 months are for you to dive in and search for more relevant readings that you can use to know more about the topic, to sharpen your focus, to narrow down your research and to formulate your research questions. This is perhaps the most exciting part of your research journey, where you will be spending hours and hours reading, reflecting, exploring, synthesizing, evaluating and … writing up your first draft proposal.
- Throughout the process, you will need to work closely with your supervisors, seeking their advice and support. You may also want to bounce ideas off with your fellow graduate students and seek their opinions about your research topic.