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2 Suggestions for small-scale research with stories

In what follows, we will outline two small-scale studies which present teachers' actual experience with research and thus they may offer good starting points for your own classroom research.

Both teachers depicted in the case studies below collected data mostly through qualitative processes: they observed or recorded their classes, took notes, transcribed data and asked for their students' and for their colleagues' feedback. In most cases they triangulated data in the hope that using different sources of information would provide them with a more complex and more accurate picture of their classes, and thus increase the validity of the findings. It is also important to note that the teachers who carried out the studies below did nothing that interfered with their normal teaching routine or that placed great demands on their lives in terms of organisation or work. Still, they got the chance to see themselves both from the inside and from the outside, due to the rich descriptive data they collected, analysed and interpreted.

If you choose to carry out a small-scale qualitative study your focus will be predominantly on processes at work, rather than on measurable outcomes (Mackey & Gass, 2005). This is good, because you will see how certain trends emerge in your students' and in your own learning and will help you raise further questions. But you must also remember that the findings of small-scale qualitative studies (such as the ones presented below) are not generalisable to all contexts. This does not make qualitative studies less valuable. It may even make them more interesting from a teachers' perspective, because they acknowledge the uniqueness of contexts and participants in a dynamic system. The empirical studies below do not mean to present all the possible ways you can take in researching your class. When you read them, try to think of how they may assist you in examining your own class and in raising questions about your professional practice.

Bernadett and the third graders

The context of the study

Right after receiving her teaching degree in English and Geography, Bernadett was offered a job at a prestigious school where she also did her teaching practice. She was now asked to teach third graders (8-9 year old students) in their first year of English. Bernadett was a very motivated and enthusiastic teacher, but being at the beginning of her career, she was also in need of resources and teaching ideas. Knowing how important it is to involve children's imagination in their learning, she decided to use stories, in particular picture books and to design her own syllabus around them. At the same time she wanted to incorporate other curricular subjects, in particular Geography, in order to make her lessons more interesting and develop young learners' content knowledge. She observed her teaching and took notes for a period of roughly three months.


Research questions

As she felt that everything was new to her as a beginner teacher, she decided to document her story-based experiments, as well as anything that would come up in connection with children's learning in a teaching diary. Some of her foci were clear from the beginning, for example she wanted to explore how stories can influence children's learning and what kind of tasks children like best. But new questions also emerged as she gained more insights into classroom processes. Thus, her main research questions were


What are children's favourite story-related tasks?

How do story-reading and interaction influence pupils' linguistic development?

How can I integrate other curricular areas through stories?

How can I check if learning occurred?


Data collection methods

Most of the data occurred through participant observation and was documented in Bernadett's teaching diary. After her lessons she put down everything she found relevant and grouped her observations around her main research questions. She also occasionally asked a colleague to visit her classes and give feedback. Most importantly, she regularly asked for the learners' opinion about classroom processes and integrated their feedback in her lessons. Whenever she did something according to a student's suggestion she made sure to point it out and thank the person for his or her idea.


In order to find out about children's favourite story-related tasks, the teacher both observed their behaviour and listened to their comments. Children claimed that they liked TPR activities (or as they called them: "moving tasks"), which they regularly had at the second reading of the story: the teacher was reading out the picture book, while the children had to stand up and sit down for certain words. Sometimes they did the same activity in groups, with boys having to stand up for one word and girls for another. According to Bernadett's observations and to students' feedback, the children also enjoyed correcting the teacher's "mistakes" in her story-telling and drawing their favourite pictures from the picture books.

Getting an answer to how story-reading and interaction influenced pupils' linguistic development necessitated more time and also an understanding of the small signs that indicated language development. It was obvious that while young learners enjoyed looking at the picture books with their teacher, the only language they could produce in English was based on repetition: songs, rhymes and the repetitive patterns from picture books. As the teacher wanted to engage them in interaction, she started using yes-no questions, which did not place great demands on the learners. Gradually, Bernadett also included open questions in order to elicit more language from the children.

Integrating other curricular areas, in particular Geography was another main focus the teacher established at the beginning of her investigations. Therefore, she looked for picture books that involved geographical topics or that could be related to distant places, journeys and different cultures and also thought about how she could expand the other stories she was using along this line. In doing so, she found that picture books allowed for much more than what she believed they would in terms of topics and she experienced that it was her own imagination that could shape the way she was using the teaching materials. For example, when using Maurice Sendak's classic, Where the Wild Things Are (1963) she drew a map of Max's journey from home across the sea and to the island of where the wild things are. Children learned content words and expressions, such as: a forest grew, across the sea, island and jungle. They also worked in groups to plan a journey involving some of the geographical concepts they had learned and showed their journey on the map.

A question that emerged in the course of investigations was how to check if learning occurred through using stories. In order to do this, Bernadett relied on the following technique: she deliberately read the story with gaps or with the wrong words and encouraged the students to supply the right words. Gradually, as she put more emphasis on reading and writing, she photocopied sheets from the picture books they were using, or asked the learners to draw some of the pictures and to label all the characters and objects in the picture. She also encouraged them to add speech and thought bubbles and write in what they thought the characters were saying and thinking. In order to be able to assess learners on their language production, she asked them to compile portfolios of their written work. This allowed her to document learners' development not only for herself, but also for the learners themselves and for their parents.

There were two more findings which emerged and that the teacher documented in her diary. One of them referred to some of her colleagues' attitude regarding her innovative practice (using picture books) and investigations in this area. Bernadett was surprised to realise that most of her colleagues were quite sceptical about her endeavours, some of them even made negative comments referring to the use of picture books ("Is this what teaching English is about ?"). To end on a positive note, we should mention another observation, which referred to the teacher's professional development. At the beginning of her exploratory study, Bernadett believed she knew little about the way children think and learn and about the way stories could be used in teaching English. But gradually, she came to feel more competent in teaching young learners with stories and she also realised that the more she knew, the more she wanted to know about her area of research.


Judit and the sixth graders

The context of the study

This small scale study was carried out in three weeks, during a student teacher's teaching practice. After Judit's first week of teaching English in the sixth grade (11-12 year olds), her mentor teacher pointed out that she often switched to the L1 in her interaction with young learners. Judit was aware of her occasional switches to her mother tongue (which she shared with the learners), but she felt that without using the L1 she could not make herself understood, and especially that the children follow the stories she was using. Because she wanted to improve on this point, she asked her friend to make a video recording of one of her lessons. Judit then used this recording as a starting point for her study, in which she focused on the following main questions:

Research questions:

When and why do I switch to the L1 while using stories?

When and why do learners switch to L1?

How do I react when learners use the L1?

What strategies do learners apply for making sense of the story they hear and read?

How can I help the learners understand the story by using English?

Data collection methods


After watching the recordings, Judit and her friend (who was also an English major student doing her teaching practice) examined all the instances when either she or the students switched to the L1 during stories and story-related interactions. Then she asked her peer to observe and take notes of her subsequent lessons. Finally, she gained information from the post-lesson discussions with her mentor teacher and her peer.


Based on the video recording and on her peer' and mentor teacher's notes, it turned out that Judit switched to the L1 in order to: (1) translate words while reading the story, (2) check meaning, (3) add explanations to what she considered too complex parts of the story, (4) react to learners' comments and (5) discipline the children. Judit had to think of whether these situations necessarily called for the L1 or whether there could be other strategies to make herself understood in English. Discussions with her peer and the mentor teacher helped her carry out the following changes in her teaching.

She simplified her speech. She told and read the stories a little more slowly and with more emphasis on content words, and used more repetition. Whenever she believed a word would be too difficult, she pointed to the corresponding picture (if there was one) or used mime and gesture while saying it. She also paraphrased words while reading, or simply changed them for words that she supposed the learners would know.

While relying on these strategies and trying to cut down on her use of Hungarian in the class, Judit also observed some of the unconscious strategies young learners were using while they made sense of stories in English. For example, she noticed that they largely relied on non-linguistic clues, as suggested by Donaldson (1987). This made her provide even more extralinguistic support, while she also made efforts to link the story to learners' lives.

Both the video recording and observers' notes documented that Judit also used Hungarian when giving instructions. Therefore, she also simplified her talk when she gave instructions; before certain tasks she modelled what learners had to do by showing a sample and by referring to similar tasks that had been previously done.

Besides her conscious focus on simplifying speech, Judit also paid attention to engaging learners in interaction about stories. She did this by asking open questions, by linking the topics to children's experience (Has anything like this ever happened to you?) and by reacting in English to whatever they said in Hungarian. A comment in the L1 on the part of the learners would elicit: Can you say that in English? I am not sure I could hear you very well. Other times she reacted to learners' Hungarian comment by repeating it in English and adding an open question, for example:

L: Na, ez jó volt. (That was nice!)

T: You think that was nice. Which was the part you like best?

Disciplining was another situation when Judit would switch to the L1 at the beginning of her teaching practice. On the one hand, she tackled this problem by trying to use shorter and more effective commands. (For this she both relied on her mentor teacher's knowledge and researched the internet for samples of classroom language in English.)

On the other hand, it surprised her to see that the more she could engage the learners in interaction and the more they talked in English, the less she felt the need to ask them to keep quiet or to behave themselves. This made her conclude that discipline problems often boil down to methodology problems in the young learner classroom.
This is how Judit summarised her experience in the research paper she handed it for her teaching practice course: "When I started teaching I had no practice in telling stories or in making the children talk. I made some mistakes both in telling the story and in teaching new words. I worried that children would not understand the story when I used my gestures, and sometimes I told the Hungarian meaning of some words after their unsuccessful guessing attempts, although the story could have been understood without that help. I used too much translation. But I tried to learn from my mistakes. By the end of my teaching practice I gained some knowledge about how to use stories and I became more self-confident."

As it appears from the two case studies presented above, classroom-based research is a channel which may provide insights and a more in-depth understanding of what happens in the classroom: of why some stories or tasks elicit more interaction than others and why some students talk less than their peers. It also turned out that small scale action research can help teachers explore and handle these daily challenges.

We have outlined four studies in which teachers introduced a small change in their classroom routine (e.g., integrating CLIL tasks with stories) and observed, documented and reflected on what happened. The teachers who carried out these studies made sure to ask research questions that could be answered in their research context. They also looked for creative opportunities to triangulate data: some of them involved their colleagues and some even relied on informal feedback gained from parents in order to interpret their findings. Most importantly, they relied on a close cooperation with their learners: they observed them and asked for their feedback in connection with the tasks and materials used. You may choose to do the same, but it is fine if you consider other data collection instruments that involve your learners. For example, you can ask them to write reflective journals, or drawing a picture of what they liked best during the class. Learners like being asked and they are usually more than willing to enrich your data with original angles, provided you ask them in various ways. Still, there is also another reason for which you might want to involve your learners into research. If they feel engaged in a dialogue about the teaching-learning process, they are more likely to take an active role and assume more responsibility for their own learning.

Through the presented samples, classroom research emerged as a valuable tool for teacher development. Teachers have become more reflective, more aware of why things happened the way they did in their classes and of how improvements could be made. The studies and the follow-up interviews with the teachers also highlighted how important it is for teachers to feel part of a professional community. This was particularly the case in instances when the teachers experienced the lack of professional support and belonging.

You will find guidance referring to the structure of an empirical study (and your research paper) in Guidelines ...