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Focus on the Language Classroom

Dick Allwright & Kathleen Bailey
Cambridge University Press, 1991
Pp. xx + 250
ISBN: 0521-26909-1

¥ 4,180


Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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A Cornerstone of Contemporary Thinking
Though a half-dozen or so major books have been published since Focus on the Language Classroom, Dick Allwright and Kathleen Bailey's ground-breaking work remains a cornerstone of contemporary thinking on the intertwined subjects of classroom (action) research and classroom activity analysis. This text can perhaps best be described as "an introduction to classroom-based research for busy teachers with little or no background in research." While more recent publications may offer a more current bibliography, or more specific instructions on how to conduct research, none can be said to better provide the 'big picture' so critical to producing meaningful research.

Setting the Foundation
The Preface defines the purposes of the book, which are to define the aims and principles of classroom research, to present some findings in key areas, and to guide the reader through the practicalities of setting up and carrying out research. This is done in a mostly reader-friendly form that avoids technical jargon where possible and provides clear definitions where unavoidable. It does this through a focus on classroom interactions as the basis of study -- which is the logical focus for most action research projects! As the authors point out on page xviii, "This book... is not a book of answers... It is a book of explorations, a book about what researchers have learned so far from attempts to study what happens in language classrooms. It is a book about how we, as teachers, might go about continuing the explorations in our own classrooms."

The structure of the book is amenable to self-study, or even better, small group studies, without the benefit of a teacher. Obviously, as with most self-study, the availability of a tutor or counselor-mentor would be a tremendous asset, yet the book is clear enough to not require a guide.

The general format is as follows: there are six Parts in the book, most are two chapters in length, with the first chapter usually more of a theoretical introduction, and the second, reports of actual studies and how they fit into current thinking. Each chapter (except the Epilogue) concludes with a Summary, Discussion Starters, Suggestions for Further Reading, and a Mini-project (and occasionally a Major-project) to allow the reader to try out the ideas expressed within the chapter. The Discussion Starters are particularly helpful for those who like to utilize this learning style: the questions are useful for personal reflection and include aspects designed for group discussion. Be ready for very divergent ideas if you are working through this book as a group! (I particularly recommend this type of study, even if it means discussions via email.)

The Framework
Parts 1 and 2 (Chapters 1-4) orient the reader to classroom research in the ELT setting. It is this section, which may seem a bit dull in the beginning (too theoretical/historical for some readers?), which allows the reader to make full use of the latter chapters: Oral Errors (Part 3), Input and Interaction (Part 4), and the mysteriously-labeled Receptivity (Part 5). Receptivity is the authors' term for the many issues that impact the learner's willingness and ability to learn. Part 6/Chapter 11 is entitled Epilogue, and it does an excellent job in 6 short pages of recapping the central themes and motivating the reader toward classroom investigations.

A useful distinction offered is identifying three different major types of research -- experimental, naturalistic, and action -- and the authors make use of this distinction in discussing various studies important to our current knowledge-base. It is also pointed out that each of these can be more or less quantitative or qualitative in design. The attributes and expectations of each type of research are reviewed, and some other lesser-known or commonly misperceived research types are noted as well. The authors also observe that one of the difficulties in gaining acceptance for many ELT-research articles is the issue of the "scientific method" -- defining the hypothesis, "adequate controls," and quantitative analysis. We may observe that 10 years later this is still an issue for publication in many of Asia's English Education journals.

Detail Work
Part 3 does an excellent job of justifying classroom research through comparison of classroom studies to quantitative-based contrastive analysis. This treatment of Oral Errors is arguably the strongest part of the book, as it displays both the need for classroom-based investigations and the need for teachers to read a variety of types of studies!

Perhaps most important for those of us who teach "Conversation" classes is the discussion in Chapters 7 and 8 on classroom participation and how students may actively participate in ways that are not directly observable by the teacher. It surely means that we must reconsider any "participation points" awarded towards the final course grade.

Finishing Touches
Despite the fact that this book is now roughly 10 years old in the fast-developing field of classroom research, Focus on the Classroom is still one of the most important titles on the subject. For those who haven't done any reading on the topic, this is an excellent starting point. For those who have, I would still recommend reviewing this as an effective means of "filling in the gaps" where other books may not have provided a complete treatment in certain fundamental areas.



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