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ELT Book Reviews


Exploring Second Language Classroom Research

David Nunan & Kathleen M. Bailey
Heinle, Cengage Learning, 2009
pp. vii-496

Reviewed by :
To the Profile PageRobert J. Dickey
Gyeongju University, Korea

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Addressing a need
Teacher as researcher is a growing area of interest as schools demand "publications" from expatriate faculty as a prerequisite for more desirable “department” jobs. For those who took traditional courses in “Research Methods” as part of a master’s degree program, some options are clear. But for the rest of us, resources such as Nunan & Bailey’s Exploring Second Language Classroom Research fill in a critical need.

It’s not enough to simply explain things. Or to explain things simply.

We don’t need a research manual, nor an “Idiots” guide, but something that shows us the What, How, and Why. Even better when it outlines the Whiches.

Exploring different ideas in classroom research
As we approach the second decade of the 21st century (OK, I’m rushing things just a bit) we might start to question some of the “new rules” that were espoused as ELT approached the new millennium. While teacher research wasn’t a new concept even in 1993, when the inaugural Teachers Develop, Teachers Research (Edge & Richards) book came out, a quick skim of the ELT literature shows that quite number of classroom research guides came out 1997-1999. Burns, Freeman, McDonough & McDonough, and Wallace all had important messages for that era of the new teacher-researcher. Each book did some things well. Time has passed since then.

It’s not enough to simply explain things. Or to explain things simply. Particularly with examples that don’t quite fit the Northeast Asian classrooms setting. One attempt to address the lack of Asian examples, the PAC Journal, died after only one issue, perhaps in part because not enough teachers understood, and were directly involved in, the kind of “Action Research” that was being called for (see for that publication).

Comprehensive but not overpowering
Many popular “teacher research” books come in around 250 pages. Even with tiny type and boring gray pages, these are forced to focus on only one or two aspects of the problem. Exploring, however, comes in at nearly twice that length, and this brings many advantages. To say that it builds on the strengths of Burns’ cases and Wallace’s detailed research methodologies doesn’t do justice to this newer work. Nunan and Bailey have filled in the gaps missing in each of these works, and brought it to life with the introspections Freeman’s book did so well. The objectives of the book, as expressed by the authors, are realized: to provide an overview/introduction of language classroom research; and to help readers develop practical skills for carrying out original empirical investigations.

Lots of research ideas
It’s not just methods, and not a collection of research summaries (each of which can be useful, see Wallace and McDonough & McDonough, and Edge & Richards and Beaumont & O’Brien, respectively), Exploring builds on the basic tenets of empirical research, and demonstrates why alternate approaches to research are equally legitimate if certain basic rules are followed. What’s more, they explain the steps underlying such designs as action research, classroom observations, introspection, and elicitation. They don’t promote any one design over another.

A different way of doing things
While one could well imagine this becoming the coursebook in many graduate TESOL programs, it is amenable to self-study. On the other hand, it has some design features that are different, and may please some but irritate others. The thematic overviews for each section of 3-5 chapters are concise and useful, but placing the learning objectives for each chapter at the front of the section distances these from the individual readings. The “Reflection” and “Action” boxes build upon the strengths of individual learners, and chapters have lots of these. Placed mid-stream of reading, however, they can cause us to lose focus, as these are not 1 minute mini-daydreams but intellectually stimulating and cognitively demanding challenges to our assumptions of what teachers do, and what research is. The “Payoffs and Pitfalls” components are an interesting and helpful way of looking at each of the research paradigms they review.

The outstanding references, solid index, and end of unit Questions are all that we would expect of noted educators such as David Nunan and Kathi Bailey.

Beaumont, M., & O'Brien, T. (2000). Collaborative research in second language education. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.
Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Edge, J. & Richards, K. (Eds.) (1993). Teachers develop teachers research: papers on classroom research and teacher development. Oxford: Heinemann.
Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
McDonough, J., & McDonough, S. (1997). Research methods for English language teachers. London: Arnold.
Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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