Language Teacher Learning Through Classroom Action Research

The following is a proposal I am drafting to get funds for some summer research. Even though the course I will be teaching is face-to-face, I think it will give me some ideas for how I could craft a similar course online. We’ve been talking about making it possible for our MA students to do a teaching practicum anywhere in the world and take their courses via online means. The practicum course and the action research course could be part of this future distance learning option.

The purpose of this project is to document and analyze new language teachers’ learning to teach through conducting classroom action research projects. Action research involves a reflective cycle in which researchers (classroom teachers) identify areas of concern in their own students’ learning, “intervene in a deliberate way… in order to bring about changes” in those issues, and reflect critically on the outcomes in order to further improve the teaching and learning situation (Burns, 2010, p. 2). The proposed study is in essence a classroom action research study of teachers’ learning to conduct classroom action research.

I will be leading a group of 12-15 UH graduate students from my department (Second Language Studies) on a two-month teaching practicum during the summer of 2014. The students will be enrolled in two courses that I will teach during the summer, SLS 690 (Teaching Practicum) and SLS 680R (Classroom Action Research). Throughout the two months, the students will be individually teaching English as a Foreign Language or English for Specific Purposes classes to undergraduate students at Ubon Ratchathani University (UBU) in Thailand. The UH students will meet weekly for the two graduate courses to discuss their teaching and to design and conduct their own classroom action research projects. As the professor of the two courses, I will be observing their teaching and mentoring them as they conduct their own research.

Some of the questions that drive my interest in learning about these new teachers’ learning to conduct research are as follows:

  • How do teachers initially conceptualize their goals for teaching and their students’ learning needs? How do those goals change over the course of the practicum?
  • How do reflective practices (journals, discussion sessions, responses to peer observations) support new teachers’ learning about their teaching and their students’ learning?
  • How do teachers’ perspectives on teaching and their students’ learning change over the course of an 8-week practicum while conducting action research in their own classrooms?
  • What forms of data do new teachers consider relevant and useful to their analysis of their students’ learning?
  • How do new teachers analyze classroom data?
  • What implications for their future practice do new teachers derive from participating in classroom action research?

Because I will be conducting my research as classroom action research, the exact questions that I end up pursuing may change as I recognize new challenges in my own teaching and in my students’ learning. Adler (2003) found that in conducting action research on her own student teachers’ action research work, she learned as much about her own research practices as she did about the student teachers’ processes. I am open to discovering such opportunities in my own pedagogical practices as well.

Data collection will include a reflective journal documenting reflections on my students’ learning, video and audio recordings and observational field notes of my students’ teaching in their own classrooms and their discussions during our practicum and research classes, documents including teaching materials I create for my courses, those my students create for their classes, and their written products from the two courses, and interviews I will conduct with students during the practicum and after it has ended. I will analyze these data recursively, identifying themes that emerge from the data and triangulating various forms of data.

Data source How collected Comments
Reflective journal Daily comments in personal journal; kept as electronic document Focus on student teachers’ actions and comments during practicum course, Action Research course, and teaching observations
Teaching materials Electronic copies (Word or pdf documents) Syllabus, powerpoint slides, and other handouts from my teaching of both the action research course and the practicum
Student-created teaching materials Electronic copies (scans of materials and lesson plans) Practicum course requirements include submission of lesson plans and materials created for teaching; action research will include creation of teaching materials
Students’ reflective writing Electronic copies submitted on Laulima or via individual blogs Students will be encouraged to keep a private reflective journal that will only be shared with me (via Laulima), but they will also be encouraged to create a public blog that can be shared with teachers around the world
Interviews Audio recording Interview questions will be developed based on emergent themes from observations and course discussion
Teaching observations Video recording Video recording will be made as part of practicum course, so students can view their own teaching practice and reflect on successes and challenges

This study offers benefits both to my own practice teaching language teachers and to their development as teachers. Through the reflective inquiry cycle, the new teachers and I will all document our work and investigate ways to improve how we improve our students’ learning, whether they are English as a Foreign Language learners or English language teachers. Furthermore, I will be able to make recommendations through publication and conference presentations for how faculty supervise and support new language teachers learning to conduct research in their own classrooms.


Adler, S. A. (2003). Dilemmas of action research. Action in Teacher Education, 25(1), 76-82. doi: 10.1080/01626620.2003.10463295

Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching: A guide for practitioners. New York: Routledge.


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Wonder Journals as Research Tool

Here’s another great activity I think I might adapt to my teacher research course, again from an elementary school teacher: the Wonder Journal.

The wonder journal is exactly the format I would like to encourage in teacher researchers as a research journal. It’s well aligned with the qualitative research ethos of ongoing analysis of data and of the researcher as instrument of data collection and analysis. I see it working in my class as a place where teacher learners can first begin reflecting on research topics and questions, then move into reflections on how they will investigate their chosen questions, and all along how they are understanding their data. The great thing about keeping such a journal is that the writing can often be copied and pasted directly into research reports–thus fulfilling the grad student’s dream of “double dipping.”

I see blogs as an ideal format for Wonder Journals for teacher researchers, where they can share their musings publicly and get responses from their classmates, colleagues, and the general public. They can also provide an impetus for discussion of how to report data while protecting student privacy: At what point do researchers need to select pseudonyms for their participants? How much detail can we give about our students without risking that someone will recognize them? What information is important to understanding the data, and what is nice but extraneous detail?


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A Few Thoughts on Teaching Online


(source: Giulia Forsythe on Flickr)

I was trying to find a good model of the classroom action research cycle, but none of the ones that show up in Google Images are Creative Commons licensed. This image was a nice representation, however, of a model for designing online courses.

In other news, my friend Kim just got published (with several of her colleagues) in the Huffington post, writing about their experiences designing USC’s online MAT program: The Humbling (at First) Experience of Teaching Online

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October 22, 2013 · 10:43 pm

Teaching Classroom Action Research Outside the Classroom

As I noted in my previous post, I’m thinking about designing an online course about classroom action research for MA students (and other interested takers) in second language teaching. I’ve taught classroom action research before, in classes for novice high school teachers, but always in a (mostly) old fashioned classroom setting. I think this is an ideal topic for an online course because most of the work of classroom action research takes places in the teachers’ classrooms, while they are teaching, so my classroom is really just the place where we talk about research and what the teachers are exploring and learning about their own students.

Designing an online class, however, is more than just taking what I talked about in the classroom and moving it onto a website. Because the students are expected to take more responsibility for their own learning through watching videos, reading, and participating in asynchronous activities, I have to make sure that I have much more planned in advance. That includes the general structure of the class as well as the little details. As I have noted before, I can’t entirely release the synchronous part of teaching because of how spontaneity seems so important to fostering collaboration and community. Thus, I am playing around with how I can make this online course replicate some of the human aspects of meeting face-to-face. I want to include at least one weekly activity that is done while the participants are logged on together. The following is how I am thinking of structuring the weekly schedule, allowing students to do most of the work on their own, but also having a set day and time when we all get together in an online forum to talk and workshop some aspect of the research process.

Weekly course plan

Day 1: Watch videos of introductory lecture, example studies, etc.

Days 2: Read assigned texts

Days 3-6: Participate in asynchronous and synchronous class activities (discussions, workshops)

Day 7: Submit Deliverable

Now that I am starting to map out the entire semester, I am wondering if I absolutely have to make every week include a face-to-face session, of if there are some weeks where what is most important is that the students are collecting data and working in their own classrooms. I like routine, and I like that f2f interactions are more likely to bring out participants’ spur of the moment concerns, but maybe in the middle of the semester I can have a two week gap between meetings. There would of course continue to be tasks and readings and discussion board posts, but not necessarily dynamic interaction. I’m also unsure exactly HOW I will bring about this interaction, or if all the students will need to be online at the same time or if I can work it out to have two or three sections depending on students’ time zones.

Just in case you were wondering, here is what I envision as the overall focus of the course:

Central Questions

  1. What is research?

  2. What is CLASSROOM research?

  3. What research do teachers do?

  4. What are the ethical issues of doing research with your own students?

  5. How is data analysis different when done by a teacher versus when done by a researcher? How can one person be both teacher and researcher when analyzing data?

  6. In what forums is it appropriate to share teacher research? How do articles based on teacher research differ from those of formal research? What journals and conferences accept articles about teacher research?

Student Learning Outcomes

By the end of this class, students will be able to:

  • Explain how classroom action research and formal research are similar and different

  • Explain the [cycle of classroom research–action research–design research??]

  • Identify researchable questions in their current teaching situation

  • Select appropriate data collection procedures for a chosen research question

  • Analyze classroom data from a research perspective

  • Analyze classroom data from a teaching perspective

  • Determine implications from data analysis for future teaching

  • Determine implications from data analysis for future research

  • Write report a report detailing the research process from question generation to data analysis and implications

  • Write a lesson plan or other document explaining an intervention or other teaching practice for other teachers

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Researching Teachers Doing Teacher Research?

I struggle to like writing even as I exhort my students to write. I buy academic writing self help books because I keep hoping there will be something out there that will tell me something other than The best way to write well is to write regularly. I want a shortcut, an easy answer, dare I say a formula for getting academic writing done and published.

But I also like learning more about how people teach writing, especially how school teachers find ways to bring more writing into their teaching and to help their students develop a writing habit. When I was teaching nothing but college writing, I was in a writing group where we wrote. We supported each other emotionally and chose interesting prompts and wrote. We did so much writing that we decided to self-publish a book. (If you’re interested, I still have about 5 copies and would be happy to share it for cheap!) I found that it did inspire me to be a better writing teacher, and that I had something to share with my students who were also struggling to find their voices and produce more writing.

So I was excited to see this blog post from a sixth grade teacher about how she figured out how to integrate her own writing life with her lessons about writing at school: “Write beside them,” said Penny Kittle. And so I did… I am so impressed at this teacher’s commitment to show her students not just the product of her writing, but the whole process. I really like how she uses her class’s writing workshop time to talk through her thoughts about her own writing.

Now I am trying to figure out how I can bring this level of integration to the graduate classes I’m designing. I can see this process being so appropriate for my Classroom Action Research course, especially if my own students are researching their students’ learning in a writing course. What could be better than to show your students that you are not a naturally perfect writer, either? Now to take it to a more meta level, I think I could even use this as a model for my own teaching. I could be a teacher researcher researching my teaching a class on teacher research. I could present it to my students as a work in progress, not one that I intend to publish (because that would be an IRB nightmare), but as the process that every teacher should do every time she teaches a class: questioning how student learning is connected to teacher practice.

I think I will be designing the class to be a workshop in itself, where graduate students who are currently teaching pose questions about their students’ learning and then systematically determine how they can collect data to understand what is going on in their classrooms. As an online class, I can foresee having students who are teaching in many different places and in many different contexts and subject areas. So I would like to experiment with things like screen capture videos where I can show my own note taking and brainstorming process as I figure out a researchable question, for example, or while I compose a draft of my methods statement. If I can also audio record at the same time, I can talk through the process that is connected to my typing and show what is going through my head as I write.

I imagine that if this process works well, that too could be something I write about (how do you document your thinking about writing for an online/asynchronous audience?). And if things work out, I can always apply to the IRB for permission to analyze existing data after the semester is over.

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Teaching Writing Online

I teach writing and I teacher teachers to teach writing. One thing we talk about in my pedagogy classes is how theories of teaching writing have changed over the years. In the old days, writing was just something students did at home to prove that they were able to write (ie, it didn’t matter how they got to the final product, as long as there was a final product to grade). Then process writing expressionism came into vogue, and teachers encouraged their students to get in touch with their feelings and express them (hence the name) through flowery essays and poems and freewriting. This was writing for the self, not for others. More recently, writing instruction has become more pragmatic, with the realization that students do need to write for others, namely their teachers and professors, but that we need to give them some support in getting from nothing to the final product.

Process writing pedagogy takes into account the idea that writing does not emerge fully formed from the writer’s pen (or keyboard) but that instead it develops in fits and starts as the writer wrestles with ideas, organization, and wording. Good writing teachers will help their students understand that this is a messy process and that it does not follow a clear, linear path. There are no formulas that can be followed or blanks to fill in. Academic writing, however, does follow culturally accepted forms–genres–and uses socially expected types of language–registers–within those genres. Some approaches to teaching second language academic writing explicitly focus on developing students’ ability to recognize and produce registers and genres that are valued in academic practice.

Too often, however, we forget one key part of the writing process: the modality in which we are creating texts. School writing is frequently done in pen on paper. In the high school where I observed writing classes, this was because the school only had two computer labs for 1500 students, most of whom did not have a computer at home. One of the teachers I observed made a point of reserving the computer lab at the end of a writing unit, so that the students could type their final drafts. The problem with this approach is that the students learned to see computers as merely a typewriter, something to make an already polished piece of text look nicer. All the drafting and revision took place on paper, with students copying text from one draft to the next. Few of the students I observed did much revision between drafts beyond surface level corrections to spelling and punctuation. In the college writing classes I’ve taught, I have seen my students unaware of how to change line spacing from single to double. When they submit electronic versions of their papers, I discover that they have been hitting return twice at the end of every line. I do not know if this practice, too, stems from earlier experiences of using computers as typewriters, but whatever the source, it makes me think that we need to include media literacy in writing instruction for students of all ages.

I’ve been thinking about how I would go about teaching a second language writing course online. To some extent, a writing course seems like a natural fit, given that modern students do all their writing online anyway and text-based communication is the most straightforward way of integrating instruction and feedback in an online platform. There are already valuable resources available free online, such as Writing Commons, an open-source textbook with vast options for teachers and learners. Discussion boards and blogs allow students to interact through writing, which seems like a great way to extend writing practice from just a focus on product. Tools like Microsoft Word’s Track Changes allow commentary on written texts, and wikis and Google docs are perfect for collaborative writing projects.

My concern is that having a writing course entirely online would lose the human touch that I have found essential to supporting second language writers. My students have rarely been confident about their writing. Most of them placed into my classes because they “failed” a placement test and were told they didn’t measure up to acceptable college level writers. So a big part of my teaching in the first weeks of the semester is helping students build up their confidence and think of themselves as writers who are worthy of being in college. We talk a lot, and I have students do activities in groups to get to know their classmates. I know much of this interaction could be set up in an online format, but I feel like there would be something missing–maybe that opportunity for a quick wink and a smile at a student who is surprised at his accomplishment, or the chance to bring in cookies on the day of the first timed in-class essay, to give the class something to sustain them through the stress. I like being able to walk around the room and look over students’ shoulders as they discuss meaningful issues, and I like giving them little insights into my own experiences as a college student and language learner.

I think a lot of my own experience developing as a writer (and I am most certainly still developing) is the personal connections I’ve made with colleagues and friends in writing groups over the years. Much of our learning came through unstructured interactions over sandwiches or beer, where we discussed the papers we were working on or the ideas we were struggling to explain. Sometimes those discussions ended with someone in tears or laughing out loud. Some of these discussions have been as beneficial to the other participants as they are to the writer. One of my writing groups now meets over a phone conference every week, exchanging drafts with comments via email, but I don’t think we would have been able to build as much of a trusting bond if we had not started out having drinks together at a pub in Oxford two years ago.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I really want to figure out how to make an online writing environment as warm and supportive as it is possible to make a classroom that meets in person. Having used platforms like Adobe Connect in my past teaching of other classes, I think it is essential to have means like these to make sure that synchronous interactions are able as much as possible to replicate the live classroom atmosphere. I would not want to teach an entirely asynchronous course, where the only way students could see me was via prerecorded videos, and the only way I would get to know them was through typed messages in discussion boards. As new technologies advance and become more ubiquitous, I hope we are able to make these links affordable and practical.

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Those who can, teach

It’s trite, but an essential component of a good teacher is deep knowledge of one’s subject matter. The old saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” is not only offensive to the dedicated, overworked and underpaid professionals who work day in and day out in classrooms around the world; it is also wrong.

Of course there are some people standing in front of students with no right to be where they are. Some people go into teaching because they think they will get summers off and only work 6 hours a day. Others went into teaching with a sense of purpose but were worn down by years of disrespect and are now just biding their time until they can collect a pension from the school district.

But the vast majority of teachers I have met (and I have met a lot over the last several decades) care immensely about their students as well as their subject matter. They have more education (minimum of a bachelors degree, but most have masters degrees and many have doctorates) than the general population. They have studied their subject matter AND child development. They have chosen their profession because they earnestly believe that young people are worth teaching, that the future of our nation depends on having educated residents who know how to think critically about the world.

What differentiates a good teacher from another subject matter expert, however, is that she also has what is called pedagogical content knowledge. This is essential–a teacher may not have complete knowledge of her subject, but she needs to know how to convey what she does know to her students in ways that will allow them to learn the concepts and understand them.

I think language teachers may be more maligned than most, in part because of the way that language in general, and bilingualism even more so, are not valued in the United States. Further, language learning is often considered (in the popular mindset) as something that anyone can do, as long as you have exposure. Thus, this belief goes, anyone who speaks a language can teach it, without any particular preparation. This phenomenon may account in part (combined with a general American fear of foreigners, especially those who want to settle permanently in the US) for English language development is relegated to teachers who don’t have any particular preparation for teaching language. ELD is tasked with the massive feat of teaching newcomers survival English, teaching longterm residents academic English, and preparing all of these students for the challenges of mainstream content classes.

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