Skip navigation

1 What is classroom-based research?

You may be less enthusiastic about the idea of doing research in class, if you think of research as something that includes a large number of participants, numerical data and statistical analysis. This is not necessarily be the case with classroom-based research, where the main focus is on the interaction among learners and teachers. The aim of classroom-centred research is to increase our understanding of classroom learning and teaching (Allwright & Bailey, 1991). For example, you may want to explore the strategies young learners rely on in order to make sense of the stories they hear, or you want to find out more about the way teachers' questions scaffold classroom interaction while talking about a story.

Another way to start research is to introduce a small change in the teaching process (for example, varying the seating arrangement, using stories, asking open questions, integrating culture and art work, or using English in class) and then observe what benefits these changes bring in your class and, in particular, how they enhance language learning.

You can get insights into these questions if you observe, describe and analyse students' and your own verbal and non-verbal behaviours while using stories. With other words, the way you collect data about your class involves processes that you can fit into your normal teaching. The data collection processes when exploring classroom interaction are predominantly qualitative, although they may obviously also involve dealing with numbers from time to time, for example when counting teachers' questions, or counting how many times a story has to be read so that children remember a word. But even this quantitative dimension is embedded in a qualitative frame, which is more likely to capture and explain classroom events.

For example, if you are a pre-service teacher and you want to carry out classroom-based research as a requirement for some of your courses (e.g., Classroom techniques, Teaching Vocabulary, Instructed SLA, Narratives in TEFL, Teaching Culture, US Society and Culture Narratives and Culture) and you decide to observe a class and interview the teacher about her beliefs about teaching and learning, you will collect data through qualitative data collection methods (i.e., observation and interview). If you are an in-service teacher, and you want to experiment with new materials, tasks or techniques in your teaching and while doing so you observe the results and reflect on your own professional development, you will carry out a small-scale action research, which again, relies on a qualitative frame for researching classroom processes. Action research focuses on introducing a small change in the teaching process (for example, (e.g., using stories, making the students work in pairs, asking open questions, integrating art work, or using English in class) in order to improve a particular aspect of classroom interaction (Nunan, 1992).

This chapter provides practical suggestions that you may find helpful while experimenting with stories in your class. Then, it outlines four small-scale studies carried out with teachers of English with diverse backgrounds and teaching experience. Look at the challenges they had in their every day practice and the questions they asked themselves to create more learning opportunities. While reading these samples of research, also think of how you and your students would benefit from asking similar questions. And most importantly: allow yourself to come up with your own ideas for research.

Choosing your focus and collecting data

Observe your class

The most natural way to do research with stories in your class is to start using them, observe what happens and write down whatever you think is new compared to previous experiences. For example, you may find that while using stories, children are more interested and more on task than usual. It may also turn out that they become involved with some stories and acquire words easily from those, yet they do not respond that well and consequently do not seem to benefit from others. It is a good idea to observe which stories create motivation and what the common features of these stories are in terms of topics, humour, pictures, etc. You will also want to know what task types students find most engaging in connection with a story. Again, you can obviously observe how they respond to different kind of tasks, but you can also elicit this information indirectly from the learners, by asking them to choose the task themselves. For example: Shall I read the story with mistakes, or shall I read it with gaps? Or, if they are already familiar with a repertoire of follow-ups, you can ask them to suggest what task to do next. By applying these techniques, you both learn more about your students' needs and wants and increase their motivation, as even small choices make them happy.

You can also focus on how exposure to stories and young learners' language development interact. Again, make sure you keep a record of all signs of development that you attribute to stories, such as children's increased willingness to communicate in English, or the use of words and expressions likely to be acquired from the stories shared in class. However, within this broad perspective, you can also ask more focused questions, such as: How many times do they need to hear a story in order to remember certain words? or In what ways can I elicit the story-related language/ideas from the learners?

Other aspects of using stories can also be observed. For example, you will find that sharing a story with children will give them the opportunity to respond spontaneously to what they hear and see. These comments can be explored both in terms of what they reveal from children's meaning making processes, and also from the point of view of how they can be used by the teacher to scaffold learning. It is worth observing

  • what children's comments refer to (e.g., the storyline and characters, the pictures, their own experiences of a similar event),
  • what these comments indicate about children's interests,
  • in what language children make their comments (L1 or L2),
  • how they respond to one another's comments,
  • in what language you react to their comments,
  • in what ways you try to build on their comments.

You as a teacher may also have your preferences in terms of the stories and tasks you use. Think of the stories that you like or dislike and think about how you can best tell or read in class. Which are the points where you can improve your storytelling or story reading. Also consider the tasks you like using and the ones you don't, and most importantly, think about the reasons for your likes and dislikes in this area.

It is not our aim here to provide a comprehensive list of possible research questions. The suggestions above are meant as starting points adaptable to your needs and wants. You will find that the more classroom data you collect, the more questions come up on the way. And as you have noticed by now, even very simple questions can help you find out more about how stories can best be used to contribute to learning.

Ask the children

Children are keen observers of what happens in class, and so they can also provide important data for your research. They can be asked if they like the stories they shared, and if so, why? If not, why not? You can also ask them to indicate the tasks they liked best, the ones they did not like and to tell you what they would do differently. For example, Nikolov (2000) asked her young learners a few simple questions at the end of each school year. The questions elicited answers to what tasks learners liked and disliked most and what they would do differently if they were the teacher. The answers gained from students over several years gave the teacher-researcher insights into general tendencies related to young learners' likes and dislikes of tasks and materials. It also became clear that children were aware of what worked best for them and could make informed choices about their learning.

You may choose to collect the information in writing or in the form of a group discussion or even informally during the break. Asking students to give feedback on the materials and processes used will not only provide you with important data concerning your students' needs, but it will also give them the confidence that they play an important and active role in their own learning.

Listen to what external observers say

External observers may also provide you with valuable data, mostly because they can help you become aware of little things that you no longer notice from the inside. For example, it may turn out that you tend to address the same students and ignore the others, or that you make eye contact with those who face you, and inadvertently avoid those sitting on the two sides. An outsiders' perspective is also useful as it may throw light on possible mismatches between beliefs about teaching and learning and actual practice. Research shows that there is often a gap between what teachers believe to be good practice and what they actually do in terms of teaching new language, getting the students motivated and involved, monitoring discussions, and so on (Nikolov, 2002; Lugossy, 2012b). For example, you may find that you occasionally switch to the L1 to explain whatever you think is unclear while telling the story, despite your beliefs that it is important to encourage learners to make sense of the new words based on the context. These apparently small classroom events matter in the long run, so it is good to be aware of them.

Writing down and analysing experience

If you observe your own class, it is important to write down your observations as soon as you can after the lesson. Another thing to bear in mind is that when you choose to make a quick note of something you consider interesting, make sure to provide information also about the context in which it occurred. For instance, if you want to remember a comment made by a learner because you think it is a good example of original thinking, it is not enough to write down this comment only, as you may forget what exactly it referred to and also why you found it important at that moment. Later, when you re-read and analyse your notes, you will find that the description of the context in which this comment was made (e.g., the story you were working with, the task, who said what) and also what ideas it gave you at that moment, will help you link the apparently isolated classroom events into a more coherent picture.

Besides writing the details of events that catch your attention, it is essential to interpret your observations through theoretical perspectives, as this will allow you to gain a deeper understanding of the processes involved while using stories in your class. If you analyse your observations from the point of view of how they relate to child SLA theories, or to recent ideas about the importance of stories in children's development (see Chapters 1 and 2), you may find that your empirical data support these theories. For example, your observations are likely to prove that children easily acquire words from meaningful and memorable contexts, such as a story they like. On the other hand, you may also come up with observations which challenge what other teachers and researchers have found. In that case, it is worth thinking about what different variables contributed to different results. Differences in age, the ratio of boys and girls, teachers' rapport with the students, the quality of the classroom discourse, and even the educational traditions in a certain country may influence the results that emerge when we use stories in class. Your findings of how stories contribute to learning need not be the same as other people's findings. This is exactly why empirical research has the power to shape new understandings about teaching and learning, and, ultimately, the power to shape practice.

For example, you may notice that you although you like using stories and you believe that using stories creates a stress-free environment that supports natural acquisition, you still tend to apply follow-up tasks that go against this belief, such as translating the story in the L1. Once you notice such discrepancies between your explicit beliefs and your practice, you will want to find out the reason for the mismatch. It may well be that you bring some of your practices with you from the time when you were a learner of English, despite your explicit beliefs about teaching and learning. Research shows that our experiences as learners of English have a long-lasting impact on our practice as teachers (Williams & Burden, 1997). We tend to teach the way we were taught, and we may not always like that. If you think you are not happy with some aspects of your teaching, observe those patterns in your class (for example, the way you correct learners, or when and why you switch to L1) and analyse your observations. You may also speculate on where and how you acquired these practices and consider how you might change them. This is what classroom research is about.

If you intend to carry out research in your classes it means that you are open to ask questions about your practice and open to accept that sometimes your practice must be reassessed in the light of your findings. By looking closely at classroom processes and the data collected, you may also find that even some of the theories which you have so far taken for granted may not really work in your class. This is also fine. Classroom research has the power to challenge and reframe theory and practice alike.