Action research in language learning.
For many foreign and second language teachers professional development opportunities take place at once-a-year conferences and sometimes during a one day staff development. Is it any wonder these "try it out on Monday!" workshops are limited and quickly fade from memory? The purpose of this paper is to explore the critical question: What happens when teachers apply a teacher action research (TAR) strategy for improving classroom practice? I will start with a definition and then outline a set of steps for conducting this type of research. Next, one teacher tells her own "story" and shares reflections on growth and development. Finally, I posit the importance of this kind of research in making contributions to language teaching and learning inquiry.
In this paper I hope to provide a rationale for the use of action research in foreign and second language education. The following questions will be answered: What is action research? What are the steps for conducting this type of research? How does literature on action research in language education influence teaching and learning? Teacher action research is referred to in the literature as action research, practitioner research, teacher-as-scholar, practical inquiry, interactive research, classroom inquiry, or practice-centered research (Downhower, Melvin & Sizemore, 1990). The common denominator in the many terms used to describe teacher action research is the teacher as an "active constructor of knowledge rather than a passive consumer of it" (Miller & Pine, 1990: 57).
This type of self driven, individualized research is a tool teachers can use to develop, reflect, and improve their teaching styles and pedagogical practices. Many teachers fear that this type of work would require too much additional time that they do not have. This fear can be minimized by examining more closely exactly what TAR is and how it can be a part of one's daily routines as a teacher. In order to reveal the facility with which one can implement a TAR project, to demonstrate the crucial value of results obtained from such work, and encourage more teachers to view themselves as researchers, a foreign language in the elementary school (FLES) teacher, as a part of a graduate course I teach on Foreign Language methods, conducted a Teacher Action Research project with her third, fourth, and filth grade students. This study was subsequently presented as a poster session at the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The research findings as well as the methodologies depict the type of valuable information that teacher action research can provide to benefit teachers and their students. The name of the teacher and school identities have been changed in order to ensure anonymity.
Some of the most beneficial aspects about teacher action research are that it is small scale, contextualized, localized, and aimed at discovering, developing, or monitoring changes to practice (Wallace, 2000). The following teacher's project began with a set of guidelines that can be used in any teaching situation to open a research process. These are the guidelines typically used in teacher action research:
* identify a puzzlement/inquiry
* decide in a systematic way how to go about answering that question
* develop a timeline to carry out the project--one week, a month, a grading period or even a lull academic year.
* decide how data will be collected and analyzed
* implement study--data collection and analysis
* report and share findings
The following investigation was conducted in the fall of 2002. The individual case demonstrates how action research can be used to improve teaching instruction in the foreign language classroom. This teacher undertook the study in an effort to improve methods of classroom management, address student attitudes, and augment impact on learning. It is important to note that this teacher was attempting a teacher action research project for the first time. The study presented addresses a particular phenomenon that was occurring in the teacher's classroom. This teacher is not only the subject of this paper but also a collaborator in analyzing the impact that this work had on her teaching and growth as a reflective practitioner. Specifically, this teacher examined effective Cooperative Learning and Peer Tutoring in a foreign language in elementary schools (FEES) setting.
Literature on Action Research and Language Teachers
While the literature contains a respectable amount of studies conducted in foreign and second language classrooms, clearly there is a need for additional research. A few educators have discussed the possibilities of teacher research for foreign and second language education (Johnson, 1992; Nunan, 1992; Nunan & Lamb, 1996) but very little has been published in journals on teacher action research, i.e., teacher as researcher. Richard Donato (2003) reported on a one-year-long, innovative professional development project for Texas' Languages Other Than English (LOTE) in which teachers explored action research as a tool for deepening professional knowledge and improving foreign language instruction in the context of their own schools and classrooms. All the studies maintain an area of focus on learners and the relationship of the learner to a particular teaching or assessment practice. In some cases, the learners became co-researchers with the teacher during the action research project and were asked to self-assess, provide input on lesson content and assessments, and rate instructional strategies for overall effectiveness (p. 18).
Marjorie Hall Haley's (2004, 2001) work examined foreign and second language teachers engaged in action research to explore the impact of Multiple Intelligences-based teaching. In the first two phases of this ongoing research, Hall Haley enlisted the help of primary and secondary language teachers from around the country and from Australia, Hong Kong, and Germany (2004: 167-169). These educators collaborated with each other and with Hall Haley to develop ways to apply MI theory to both instructional strategies and assessment practices. Data showed that "learner-centered instruction from the perspective of multiple intelligences.... demonstrated students' strengths and weaknesses can be affected by a teacher's pedagogical style" (2004:171). If the goal of research is to improve our understanding of the field and eventually to influence practice, then the importance of teachers being directly involved in research in their classrooms, both individually and collaboratively is clear (Bell, 1997:2). As Freeman and Richards (1996:5) point out, "In order to understand language teaching, we need to know more about language teachers: what they do, how they think, what they know, and how they learn."
Note: In order to distinguish between the teacher's story and the methods professor's description, the sections of the text have been identified accordingly, Lita Ashley wanted to develop strategies for teaching two distinct student groups in one classroom. This challenge is common to today's classrooms and is one for which TAR can provide compelling information to teachers. In this scenario, the teacher focused her study on the use of cooperative learning groups and peer tutoring activities to address the diversity of learners in her classroom.
Lita Ashley, French Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) teacher Cooperative Learning Groups and Peer Tutoring: Can they unite students with different language experience in the same classroom?
Introduction My foreign language classroom is located in an elementary school in the northern section of Virginia. I am a French FLES teacher who teaches first through fifth graders three times per week for thirty minutes each. My classes contain students of various levels of experience in learning French. The use of cooperative learning groups and peer tutoring can provide opportunities for students who are more experienced in the language to help those students who are less experienced. How can these two instructional strategies unite a classroom of differing language experiences? My research was conducted in a French filth-grade FLES class. The class is designed to be taught in the target language with a large number of interactive activities to promote a greater understanding of conversational French. There are twenty-eight students (ages ten to eleven) in the class. Eighteen of the students are in their third year in the French program while ten of the students have never had any French before. These students are on very different language levels based on their experience in French. From the very first day of class this school year, these two different groups of students have displayed marked differences in their ability to respond in class. The students who have never had French before often display behavior problems and disrupt the learning process. They often act out in class to compensate not understanding any or most of the language that is being spoken. On the other hand, the students who have had French before appear bored as I am forced to stop many times and catch up the other students. This classroom situation provided a question for me to find ways to help both groups of students effectively learn in the same FLES classroom. This FLES classroom is in an elementary school of approximately five hundred and sixty-five students. The majority of the students live in a middle-class neighborhood, comprised of culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse families.
Puzzlement What types of classroom activities best engage the entire class when students are at two different language levels? How do I keep the 18 experienced students interested and challenged in class while bringing up the 10 inexperienced ones to the level of the others?
Methodology I enlisted all 28 students in the classroom to participate in this research and received parental permission. I used a variety of interactive activities in French as well as four exit slips (a simple survey/questionnaire that allows students to self assess their progress; usually done at the end of the class before students exit the room) in English during this research project. Two cooperative learning methods employed were peer tutoring and think-pair-share. In peer tutoring, classmates taught each other simple concepts in the content areas such as math, science, or language arts. Think-pair-share was an activity in which students first listened while I posed a question, and then the students were given time to think of a response. Next, they were paired with a classmate to discuss their responses, and finally they shared their responses with the whole class. Exit slips, three to four short questions that the students were asked to respond to in writing, were collected at the end of each lesson to find out what they had learned and how they liked it. I tallied the results for all the students in a notebook to compare their reactions and abilities.
Data Collection I planned interactive activities during two 30-45 minute classes each week. Exit slips were given over a period of six weeks at the conclusion of each interactive activity. I gave written assessments and exit slips to evaluate how the students were performing these interactive activities. See Figures 1, 2, and 3 for three examples of surveys that were given to the students. See issue website http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/fal2005.htm
Data Analysis I tallied the results of the surveys to compare and contrast the progress of the students. I was looking for data that would show that the interactive activities were improving the students' knowledge and performance in the language. I also wanted to evaluate the students' attitudes towards learning another language during this process.
Results Throughout this research project, I found that using cooperative learning strategies enhanced the learning process in this FLES classroom. I also found that this classroom strategy helped encourage participation in the classroom, thereby making a more relaxed and comfortable learning environment for all students.
Conclusion Two types of cooperative learning activities that were used with this research project included peer tutoring and think-pair-share. In each of the classroom activities used in this study, I found the students demonstrated greater classroom participation, greater language retention, as well as a reduced level of anxiety when speaking the target language in class. By keeping a journal each day about behavior in the classroom and the students' responses to the lesson (as well as recording notes after each class), I noted a reduction in classroom behavior problems. After reading and analyzing the exit slips from this research project l discovered that the students expressed an overall positive experience from working with the cooperative learning groups and activities. Their reactions were positive when they were posed the question, "Did you like working in groups and pairs?" This teacher research action project has shown that the use of cooperative learning strategies can begin to unite a divided classroom of differing language experiences.
Implications With our society and student populations becoming more and more diverse in background and academic experiences, it will become increasingly important to use cooperative learning strategies in foreign language classes. The part of the state in which the study took place is made up of a large percentage of transient families--often moving for enhanced job opportunities. There are students from a variety of educational backgrounds who enter foreign language classrooms at different times during the school year. As educators we need to find techniques and instructional strategies to help these students smoothly transition into an environment that encourages and enhances their academic success.
Reflections This research project has validated for me the importance of trying new and varied activities in my foreign language classroom instead of a traditional lecturing style of teaching. Students enjoy helping each other learn as they work together in groups. It is clear to me that students have the ability to have a major impact on their own learning and that of their peers when they work together. I learned a great deal about my teaching from this experience. As a result of this systematic feedback, I feel that I view planning and assessment with a broader lens. Being aware of what works best for my students has deepened my awareness of being experimental and fluid in seeking a variety of ways to reach all learners.
A systematic approach to data collection is an essential element in TAR. Lita was very purposeful in organizing and assembling her data. By closely examining the results of her data collection, Lita was able to determine that cooperative learning and peer tutoring made her diverse class more united and more able to work together in a productive and stimulating learning setting. The research she completed allowed her to focus on a need and construct a way to address that need to benefit both the teacher and students involved.
This case study is a brief glimpse into demonstrating how action research can benefit and improve teaching strategies or approaches. According to Lita, "I never regarded myself as a classroom-based researcher. For me, doing this research was very empowering and I am a more confident teacher."
At the outset of the paper I chose to ask a critical question, "What happens when teachers apply TAR strategy for improving classroom practice?" The use of TAR allowed this teacher to actively engage in classroom-based research. Here we have a clear example of how a teacher acting as a researcher can create a thought-provoking environment that allowed her to become the learner by constructing an individualized informative study that often yielded useful results.
Focusing on a variety of instructional strategies for young language learners enhanced this teacher's pedagogy both from a researcher's perspective but also she gained insights into language acquisition and learning processes. These all contributed to her overall professional development. Teachers conducting research are empowered. The teacher cited in this article learned not only about the TAR process but about the profound effect this type of research can have on teaching. Teacher research treats teachers as autonomous, responsible agents who participate actively in directing their own work and their own professional development (Zeichner & Klehr, 1999). TAR is transformative in its ability to scientifically display the dynamics of a classroom and present the teacher as a professional with an individual research base.
Finally, of primary importance is that this kind of research is making contributions to language teaching and learning inquiry. Teacher share their findings and continue to co-construct new knowledge. Teachers engaged in classroom research typically become leaders in their schools. Often their work is shared within the school district and many go on to present their findings at local, state, and in some cases, national conference settings. These are sometimes presented as workshops or poster sessions. The relationship that forms between the classroom teacher and the university academician provides a very fertile ground for additional work. Such was the case with the teacher who told her "story" in this article. She is not only a school leader but continues to collaborate with the university methods professor in on-going professional development projects.
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Marjorie Hall Haley, George Mason University, VA
Marjorie Hall Haley, PhD, is tenured associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia