Recent literature has acknowledged the value of teacher research as an empowering means of teacher professional development. However, to date, many teachers still remain uninvolved or seem to attach little importance to classroom-research research. What are the sources of their seeming reluctance to conducting research? This paper provides explanations of some of the sources of difficulties that teachers face and offers practical suggestions of supporting teacher research. This paper hopefully will inspire teachers to become more involved in research and experience the joy of seeing more clearly the link between theory and practice.
The call for classroom teachers to do research is getting louder by the year. Ministries of education and school administrators have been trying to encourage teachers, without much success, to do research as part of their professional development activities. The thinking behind this call is that teacher research can help teachers become more effective and reflective practitioners, which in turn would benefit their students.
We know of many teachers who are keen to do research on their own classroom, but who have not done any for various reasons. Some of the most heard reasons include lack of research skills, lack of time, limited access to relevant literature, or lack of interest in research as teachers often cannot see the link between research and teaching. The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the difficulties that teachers encounter and suggest ways of supporting teacher research.
Instead of writing this paper in an essay format, we thought our readers would appreciate a question and answer format, in which we will ask and respond to each other’s questions about issues and concerns teachers often have about research. We hope the readers will find this format more stimulating and invigorating.
But first, let’s introduce ourselves.
Flora and I are what people have referred to as teacher scholars. We both work in a university setting. She teaches skills courses (e.g., communication skills) and also methods courses (e.g., principles for teaching English as an International Language) in a university in Indonesia; I am a language teacher educator, mostly teaching methods courses to pre service and in service teachers in a university in Singapore.
Both of us have done pedagogical research both individually and also jointly. We have also co-authored a couple of practical papers on some aspects of English Language Teaching (ELT).
A CONVERSATION ABOUT SUPPORTING TEACHER RESEARCH
Flora: Would you agree that teachers are more interested in teaching than research?
Willy: Yes and no. I have seen teachers whose main interest is to develop their knowledge and skills in teaching students. Their main concern is how they can help their students acquire, maintain and extend their students’ language proficiency in the most efficient manner. They want to know more about how they can enhance their students’ ability to understand spoken and written language and to use language for social and academic purposes.
But I have also met teachers who are keen to do research but who seem to have difficulties getting started. Most of them say that time is a major factor. In addition to a heavy teaching load, teachers have to do many other school related duties that take up most if not all of their non teaching time.
Many consider themselves lucky if they can get through the semester alive. Not surprisingly, research is often not at the top of their to-do list. They hardly have time to keep themselves updated on recent developments in language learning and teaching, let alone setting aside a chunk of their time on a research project.
Flora: So what can be done to support teachers who want to do research? Can’t school administrators reduce their staff’s workload? If they truly believe that research brings numerous benefits, then it makes sense to give teachers some time off for their research. What do you think?
Willy: Yes great idea. But schools can’t just give every single teacher time off for their teachers to do research as this will create a serious staffing problem that can’t disrupt the normal schooling activities. For a start, schools could consider giving a reduced workload to a small group of teachers (say between 10 to 15%) could be a viable solution. So say a school has a staff strength about 20 teachers, two or three of them could be put on this reduced teaching scheme for a semester or two. Would this idea work in your institution, Flora?
Flora: Yes that would solve the staffing issue. But just giving teachers time is not enough. My experience is that teachers also need other types of support. They need relevant resources to get started with their research. They need access to recent literature on ELT which they then can use as a basis for contextualizing their own classroom based research.
Willy: I understand that there is a huge body of literature on ELT. Can you give some examples of the types of literature that is most relevant for the kind of research that teachers typically do?
Flora: Good question and very relevant too!! Teachers are normally not interested in academic research. According to Maley (2016), academic research is done by academics who do research in order to critique existing hypotheses or theories and to advance new theories about the nature of language and language learning. Academic research takes months or years to complete and involves lengthy and complex data collection and analysis. This type of research, Maley says, has no immediate applications for language teaching in the classroom. So I am not sure if teachers will find reading the academic research literature particularly useful for their own research.
Since teachers are typically more interested in doing the kind of research that is more immediately relevant for their students, I feel they should be reading pedagogically oriented research studies which they can then use as a model for their own research. Reading this type of work would also give teachers an idea about how to ask pedagogically sound research questions, how to collect useful classroom data, how to go about analyzing and making sense of this data and about how to draw useful pedagogical insights from the research.
I would suggest that we should make available books and articles written by ELT scholars who are known for their ability to summarize and synthesize research findings in an accessible and teacher friendly style of writing. Personally I have learned a great deal from reading professional books written by Anne Burns, Christine Goh, Jack Richards, Alan Maley and Jeremy Harmer, just to name a few.
The book you edited with Jack Richards “Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice” by Cambridge University Press (2002), is an example of the kind of book that I found useful during my early years as a novice teacher/researcher. The book covers a wide range of relevant topics in TESOL and was written in a very accessible style.
Willy: I am glad you found that book useful. I think teachers would also find a more recent book that I edited “English language teaching today: Linking theory and practice” (Springer 2016) informative and useful. The chapters discuss familiar topics within ELT (e.g., teaching listening, speaking, reading and writing) in which the link between theory and practice is systematically highlighted using a set of research based principles.
The chapter on extensive reading and listening that I co-authored with Dr George Jacobs, for example, contain a set of principles that can be used as a basis for conducting a small scale research study that examines the effectiveness of an extensive reading/listening programme. Some of these principles include the following:
- Students read and listen in quantity.
- The reading and listening materials should be interesting and comprehensible
- Teachers should provide interesting and enjoyable post-reading and listening activities
- Teachers should provide ongoing support to weaker readers and listeners
Flora: In many developing countries, educational institutions operate on a rather limited budget and many find that professional books or journals published by mainstream publishers like Cambridge University Press, Routledge and Springer are just too expensive. They may be able to purchase these books once in a while, but probably not every year.
Are there online resources that you could suggest? I mean free online resources.
Willy: Yes, there are some really good open access journals that publish high quality articles. These journals are managed by professional associations in our field or educational institutions (usually universities). I have used articles published in these journals as references for my own research. I list some of them here.
- English Australia Journal: the Australian journal of English language teaching http://www.englishaustralia.com.au/english_australia_journal.html
- Humanizing Language Teaching http://www.hltmag.co.uk/index.htm
- Korea TESOL Journal https://koreatesol.org/content/korea-tesol-journal
- Language Education in Asia http://www.leia.org/
- Reading in a Foreign Language http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/
- TEFLIN Journal: http://journal.teflin.org/index.php/journal
- TESL EJ http://tesl-ej.org/wordpress/
- TESL Reporter http://tesol.byuh.edu/tesl_reporter
- The English Teacher https://journals.melta.org.my/index.php/tet
Can you add a few more, Flora? Or perhaps you have other useful online resources that teachers can use for their research?
Flora: Yes, here are a few more:
- English Teaching: Practice and Critique https://edlinked.soe.waikato.ac.nz/research/journal/index.php?id=1
- TESL Canada Journal http://teslcanadajournal.ca/index.php/tesl
- The CATESOL Journal http://www.catesoljournal.org/
In addition to journals, teachers can also check the websites of well known scholars in our field, who often put their works online. Some of the websites I often go to when I need references include the following:
- Stephen Krashen http://www.sdkrashen.com/
- Jack Richards https://www.professorjackrichards.com/
- Paul Nation https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/paul-nation
Willy: I’d like to mention a useful online resource on reading that I often consult, i.e., Reading Rockets. This contains extremely useful resources about the teaching of reading. You can find theoretical discussions on various aspects of literacy, practical tips for teaching reading to young and older children, sample model lessons. Here is the website address: http://www.readingrockets.org/. Although Reading Rockets offers teaching ideas for L1 reading contexts, many of the strategies, lessons and activities can be applied to second or foreign language reading contexts.
Flora: I am sure these online resources will come in handy for our budding teacher researchers. Are there any other types of support that teachers would need to get started with their research?
Willy: A refresher course might be useful, I would think. But the course content will need to be customized so as to meet the needs of teachers who will soon be doing a practice oriented type of research. Unlike academic research which normally begins with an extensive review of the literature to identify a research gap, pedagogically oriented research begins with a practical problem that teachers want to solve.
So one important topic in the refresher course could be on how to identify practical language learning/teaching problems and how to turn these into a workable research questions. Here are some examples of practical classroom problems that teachers can examine via research:
- My students seem to be on task during my lessons but their performance on the mid-term test was below my expectations. What are some of the things I can do to increase my students’ level of engagement so that they can learn more from my lessons?
- My students do not speak much in my speaking class. Is it because (i) the topic is not interesting? (ii) the task is too challenging, (ii) they don’t have the language to express their ideas? Or (iv) they don’t feel comfortable working in groups?
Flora: How about the ministry of education? Is there anything they can do to support teacher research?
Willy: Yes, I think so. They can for example provide a small amount of funding for teacher research. This can be used to pay for the work done by a research assistant during the data collection and analysis stage of the research. As we know, classroom data (e.g., video-recorded lessons) take many hours to transcribe and analyze and teachers do not have the luxury of time to do this. So having a research assistant do this work is a big help for teachers.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Education goes one step further and has developed a research mentoring scheme for school teachers. Teachers can apply for funding for their research and if successful, they are then assigned a research supervisor (usually a professor teaching at the National Institute of Education, Singapore) whose job is to provide ongoing support throughout the duration of the research project. I have served as research supervisor for a number of English teachers and found the partnership to be mutually beneficial. The teachers get to learn about doing classroom based research more systematically and I get to understand the kind of problems they encounter in their teaching and how these problems can be addressed (or solved) by research.
Flora: Once the research is done, would you encourage teachers to write up their research findings and get these published in a journal? What are the pros and cons here?
Willy: Yes that’s a very good option. It is an excellent way to share research findings with other teachers working in different places but facing similar problems. But teachers also need support here; finding the right journals for their research is not always straightforward. I have written a practical paper entitled “Choosing the right international journal in TESOL and Applied Linguistics (Renandya, 2014) that offers practical tips on how to choose the most suitable journal for our research work. This paper can be downloaded for free and is available here: http://blog.nus.edu.sg/eltwo/files/2014/06/Choosing-the-Right-International-Journal-in-TESOL-and-Applied-Linguistics_editforpdf-10fy3c2.pdf.
For teacher research, I would suggest that teachers consider submitting their manuscripts to practice oriented journals. These are journals that publish both practical teaching ideas and research papers done by classroom teachers. There are two benefits. First, the readers of these journals are teachers so we are sharing our research findings to the right target readers. Second, the rejection rate of practice oriented journals is lower compared to that of academic journals so the chance of our manuscript being accepted is higher.
For beginning teacher researchers, I would suggest that they consider sending their manuscripts to journals such as Humanizing language teaching (http://www.hltmag.co.uk/index.htm), Modern English Teachers (https://www.modernenglishteacher.com/homepage), English Teaching Professional (https://www.etprofessional.com/home) or the Language Teacher (http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/ ). These journals publish short practical and research papers and have wide, international readership.
For more experienced teacher researchers, they could consider the ELT Journal (https://academic.oup.com/eltj) and the RELC Journal (http://journals.sagepub.com/home/rel). The RELC Journal has a special section called “Innovation in Practice” which publishes short teacher research papers of about 3,000 words. This section is particularly suitable for teacher research reports. Both are well established mainstream language education journals with a wide international readership. The rejection rates of these journals however are quite high (roughly about 95% rejection rate).
Flora: I agree those are good teaching journals. In fact I have just completed a small scale classroom based research exploring how technology can be used to enhance the teaching of oral skills. I have written up the findings and am about ready to submit it to the “Innovation in Practice” Section of the RELC Journal.
I have one piece of advice for teachers who plan to submit their papers to journals. They need to exercise caution when selecting journals. There are hundreds out there; many publish good quality papers and are managed by dedicated scholars in our field. However there are some that publish low quality papers and are managed by irresponsible individuals whose main goal is to enrich themselves. They accept manuscripts for publication based on the authors’ ability to pay publication fees, and not based on the standard blind review process that good journals do.
It is not always easy to distinguish good from bad journals. To the uninitiated, bad journals (also known as predatory journals) may look legitimate. My advice to novice teacher researchers is for them to consult their more senior/experienced colleagues about how to avoid sending their manuscripts to bad journals. One good source that I often consult is Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers and journals: https://beallslist.weebly.com/. Another useful source is: https://predatoryjournals.com/journals/. I would just stay away from journals listed in these two websites.
However it does not mean that journals not included in lists above are automatically good. The lists in the two websites are quite comprehensive, but new predatory journals keep appearing almost every month, if not every week. So we need to do our own research when choosing our publication outlet.
Willy: In addition to journals, what other options are there for teachers to share their research findings? Is it a good idea to share your research at conferences?
Flora: Conferences can be a very good place to share your research with other people. You can present your research in a parallel session. This is a formal session where you speak for about 20 minutes to a group of participants about your research, describing your research objectives and research questions, your research methods and the key findings of your research. You then conclude with a discussion of possible pedagogical implications for your research. The presentation usually ends with a brief Q&A session.
The Q&A is a useful part of your presentation as you get to hear what people think about your research i.e., if there is any flaw in your research methodology, if your interpretation of the research data is too subjective or biased and what kinds of follow up research studies could be conceptualized to address some of the problems in your just completed research.
One cautionary note: Do avoid presenting at conferences organized by profit making companies as such conferences tend to be poorly organized and offer low-quality submitted papers. I normally participate in conferences organized by professional associations in our field (e.g., CamTESOL, VietTESOL, ASIATEFL), by reputable universities or educational institutions (e.g., RELC Conference) or by Ministries of Education.
Willy: Personally I find a workshop session more useful both for the teacher researcher because the focus is more on applications. Also, the time allotment for a workshop session is longer, about 60 minutes, which would allow the teacher researcher to share pedagogical insights from the research with the workshop participants through hands-on activities.
For example, after completing a study on the use of cooperative learning strategies to enhance more student interactions in a speaking class, the teacher researcher could discuss specific cooperative learning strategies that promote greater interactions and those that do not. Afterward, workshop participants could be invited to reflect on their own practice and suggest ways of making cooperative learning strategies more effective and applicable in their teaching contexts. Thus, both parties can learn a great deal from the rich discussions during the workshop.
Flora: Presenting in a conference is great, but some teachers may have the luxury to participate in a conference. Taking time off from teaching can be a problem, due to teachers’ tight teaching schedules. Also, not all teachers can secure conference funding from their schools or institutions.
Willy: Yes I understand what you mean. Fortunately, technology has enabled people to communicate with each other at minimal or no cost involved. We can encourage teachers to use social media to share their research with other language teaching professionals from around the world. I know a number of online teacher development platforms on Facebook where people share teaching ideas and research insights in a friendly and productive manner. I myself am an active member and administrator of a number of such FB groups. Here are some language teacher development forums that I would recommend to both language teachers and researchers:
- Teacher Voices: https://www.facebook.com/groups/teachervoices/
- ELT in Vietnam: https://www.facebook.com/groups/196442957356639/
- Extensive Reading Friends: https://www.facebook.com/groups/exreading/
- KOTESOL: https://www.facebook.com/groups/kotesol/
- TESL-EJ: https://www.facebook.com/groups/teslej/
These are professionally moderated online communities managed by dedicated language teaching professionals in our field. Membership is voluntary and free of charge. Members can write posts on almost anything related to our language teaching profession. In Teacher Voices, for example, members have shared useful teaching resources available on the web (e.g., Reading Rockets http://www.readingrockets.org/), extensive lists of references on various aspects of language teaching (e.g., https://www.tirfonline.org/resources/) and a more specialized annotated bibliography on extensive reading (e.g., http://erfoundation.org/wordpress/er-bibliography/).
I have personally found the extensive reading annotated bibliography extremely useful for my own research on reading. This site contains more than 500 annotated works on extensive reading. Teachers who want to get started on researching extensive reading can just visit this site and dive into the wealth of resources available there.
Flora: One last question I would like to ask you about teacher research. Do you think that research is something that ALL teachers should do?
Willy: If by research you mean formal academic research of the kind that you read in academic journals and valued by the academic research community, then the answer is no. Donald Freeman (1998) says that the teacher’s main job is to help students learn in the most effective manner, not to do high profile research and generate new knowledge about teaching to be shared with the public. Researching, documenting and generating public knowledge about teaching is the job of academic researchers who work in research centres or universities.
Having said that I must hasten to say that most teachers are engaged in research most of the time. When they reflect on their just completed lesson, thinking back about what they have done right (or wrong) and making plans about how they can improve on their teaching, they are in fact doing ‘research’ on their classroom. When they invite a colleague to observe their lesson and then discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their lesson, they are researching their teaching.
This type of teacher research has been referred to as ‘teacher inquiry’. Writing about the differences between academic research and teacher inquiry research, Péter Medgyes (2017) says that the latter is concerned with real classroom problems and how to solve them, rather than about developing broad theories about language teaching.
In a large scale international study on teacher research, Borg reported that close to 55% of the teachers in his survey conducted research at least sometimes. Their reasons for doing research are more associated with the definition of teacher inquiry such as to find more effective teaching methods, to solve practical teaching problems and to engage in professional development. This figure is quite encouraging, although I would like to see more teachers engaging in inquiry research.
I like how Peter Medgyes defines what a teacher inquirer is: “… a professional capable of analysing their work on their own and exchanging their knowledge and experience with fellow teachers” (2017, p 491).
We believe that teachers are capable of doing the kind of research that can help them become more effective and reflective practitioners. The rather low percentage of teachers doing formal classroom inquiries is probably more to do with contextual factors such as lack of time or lack of support, rather than factors to do with teacher interest or capacity. As we have shown in our conversation above, teachers seem to be doing informal and ongoing research, reflecting on their teaching and thinking about how they can design and deliver more effective and engaging language lessons.
Borg, S. (2009). English Language Teachers’ Conceptions of Research. Applied Linguistics, 30(3), 358–388.
Freeman, D. (1998). Doing Research: From Inquiry to Understanding. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Maley, A. (2016). More research is needed”—a mantra too far?’. Humanising Language Teaching, 18:3. Available at http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart01.htm (accessed on 1 December 2017).
Medgyes, P. The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher. ELT Journal, 71(4), 491–498.
Renandya, W.A. (2014). Choosing the right international journal in TESOL and Applied Linguistics. English Language Teaching World Online: Voices from the Classroom (ELTWO), 6, 1-17.