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Research Methods For English Language Teachers

Jo McDonough and Steven McDonough
Arnold, 1997
pp. ix +262


Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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The demand for research
The past few years have seen an explosion in the number of demands placed on teachers of English. Standards of qualification and continuing professional development, involvement in materials development, and expectations of published research are pulling teachers in directions the "simple classroom teacher" may have never expected. This just to hold on to a job, let alone to climb the professional ladder!

Few teachers have been prepared to undertake research other than what might be required for their graduate school programs

While there are organized programs and professional societies to facilitate the education & training aspects of professional qualification, and an experienced teacher may be able to delve into their own "bag of tricks" in materials development, research support is harder to find.

Research methodology
Few teachers have been prepared to undertake research other than what might be required for their graduate school programs. Often these research projects have little applicability to the activities and interests of practicing teachers. Where to start? Which to do: applied research, action research, classroom(based) research, teacher research, experimental (clinical) research? Why? There is no consensus.

Jo and Steven McDonough provide a clear roadmap of options in their little publicized reference Research Methods for English Language Teachers. This text has a number of advantages over many of the more popular "teacher research" books, and is a very useful starting point for those considering engaging in a research project.

Action research?
Recent years have seen the growth in popularity of "action research" for English language teachers, yet there is considerable disagreement on the definition and essential elements within that form. The McDonoughs do not appear to prefer action research over other forms, but provide guidance and advice on the various choices a teacher must make. This is an important distinction from Anne Burns' (1999) Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers, which is an excellent guide to conducting one form of action research.

As the McDonoughs observe, there is a danger of making a research paradigm so "alternative" that it becomes an "either /or" choice. While the context for this quote is that of teachers choosing not to consider the work of non-teacher researchers, this knife cuts both ways: teacher research that lacks the elements of generally accepted research practices may be discounted by those in authority (employers, journals, etc.). Action research is currently so broadly defined that it risks such polarization.

Types of research designs
It is impossible to count how many research designs are discussed in Research Designs for English Language Teachers, because the authors point out that lines are often quite fuzzy, and concepts overlap. Roughly the first 1/3 of the book is an introduction to research concepts, then eight chapters discuss the following areas: observation, diaries, numbers, experiments, asking questions, introspection, and cases. They note that they are "concerned primarily with the kinds of investigations that teachers can undertake as an integral part of their professional lives" (p. 103). They further observe that "it is not at all self-evident that the experiment method … is at all relevant" (p. 156).

Choices for this topic
In books of this nature, there is a balancing act to be performed. Graduate school courses may focus on statistical and research methods, and coursebooks are created to fill this need. We might call these "methods books." Other books may serve more as an overview and inspiration to research. There are, of course, books that straddle this divide, to one side or the other.

Donald Freeman's Doing Teacher Research is clearly an overview book, and quite nicely done in its way. Quite reader-friendly, and it provides numerous reader-study aids. It offers few tools for research, but is more of a "call to arms" for teachers to engage in research studies of whatever type. His book, like the McDonoughs', does not incorporate "reflective teaching" as a research design. The McDonoughs' chapter on introspective methods is oriented largely to recovering the thoughts of the learners.

Michael Wallace's Action Research for Language Teachers provides far more detail in the "how to" aspects of conducting research, a step by step guide. I've noted elsewhere (2001) that it could be a "useful companion to a more traditional treatise in a Master's course" and that "the detail in Wallace can be discouraging to a 'cover to cover' reader." It's an excellent desktop reference, and compliments this book rather than replacing it.

None of the books discussed here replace a good research methods course, and all novices in research should seek more experienced peers for suggestions and insights prior to delving deeply into a research project. Many of us are far from graduate school courses, however, and we must study as and when we can. As a general introduction to the issues of teacher research, Jo and Steven McDonough's Research Methods for English Language Teachers is clearly a comprehensive and complete book designed for the practicing teacher of English.


References

  • Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dickey, R. (2001). Perspectives on Action Research. The PAC Journal, 1(1).
  • Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
  • Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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