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Action research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Teaching
Wordcount: 4264 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Action research in English Language Teaching is relatively a recent development which has been predominant in the literature in late 1980s and early 1990s. This essay explores the definitions, literature, benefits and challenges of action research as a method of teacher research in teacher education and development. It concludes by a critical assessment of the application of this research methodology and its sustainability in ELT.

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There is a plethora of definitions of action research just as there is myriad literature on the subject by many scholars in many fields of human endeavour. Burns (2005) in her seminal paper on action research has explored definitions of action research by extensively highlighting the views of educators such as Denzin & Lincoln (1998), Rogers (1961), Grotjahn (1987), Freire (1970), Schutz (1967) among others. She sums up that action research is a “part of ‘a quiet methodological revolution’ towards qualitative research approaches” which impacted on the social sciences and emerged in reaction to scientific, experimental and quantitative paradigms. It encourages “participative, ‘naturalistic’ enquiry with its exploratory-interpretive underpinnings” (Burns, 2005:57). Action research, since 1940s, and its related branches such as action science, action learning, practitioner research, participatory research, and collaborative/cooperative enquiry have been part of the new revolution towards change in human social and economic situations. Burns further explains that action research is a general movement that attempts to create meaning and understanding in a problematic social situations and improving the quality of human interactions and practices within those situations.

The relevance of action research to English Language Teaching and teacher education, as we can deduce from the foregoing, is that it cuts across many disciplinary fields which include the field of applied linguistics. It is seen as a flexible research methodology suitable for research that supports change. According to Hopkins (1985: 32) and Ebbut (1985:156) the combination of action and research presupposes action as a form of disciplined inquiry in which personal attempt is made to understand, improve and reform practice. Cohen & Marion (1994:186) see action research as “small-scale intervention in the functioning of real world” thus a closer examination of the effects of change of such intervention integrates social research with exploratory action to

promote development. Lisa (2008:4) states “action research involves fluid and overlapping cycles of investigation, action planning, piloting of new practices and evaluation of outcomes incorporating at all stages the collection and analysis of data and generation of knowledge. She maintains “that the outcomes of action research are both practical and theoretical. The knowledge it generates has a direct and ongoing impact on changing practice for participants and on a wider audience through its publications”, and application.

This essay, however, focuses on educational action research (teacher action; as in Borg’s paper on ‘Conditions for Teacher Research’; Condition 9: Community) with inclination to English language teaching. Thus the essay explores educational action research, its processes, purposes and characteristics in line with the views expressed by Burns (2009). The essay draws its conclusion from the challenges, status and how action research can be encouraged, maintained and promoted in English language teaching.


The popular belief is that Kurt Lewin is the originator of action research in the 1940s. His work was intended to change the life chances of disadvantaged groups in terms of housing, employment, prejudice, socialization and training. The combination of action and research has contributed to the attraction of this method of research to researchers, teachers, academic and educational community. Kurt was a psychologist, influenced by the work of the social philosopher, J. L. Moreno, in group dynamics and social movements in early 20th century Germany. Kurt conceived of research as leading to social action, and saw action research as a spiral of steps ‘each of which is composed of circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action’ (Lewin, 1948:206, cited in Burns, 2009:58). Zuber-Skerritt (1996a) suggests emancipatory action research…is collaborative, critical and self-critical inquiry by practitioners… into a major problem or issue or concern in their own practice. They own the problem and feel responsible and accountable for solving it through teamwork and through following a cyclical process of:

  1. strategic planning;
  2. actions, i.e. implementing the plan;
  3. observation, evaluation and self-evaluation;
  4. critical and self-critical reflections on the results

On the basis of points 1-3 decisions could be made for the next cycle of action research. Earlier, Zuber-Skerritt (1996a:3-5) argues action research is emancipatory when it aims not only at technical and practical improvement and the participants’ better understanding, along with transformation and change within the existing boundaries and conditions, but also at changing the system itself or those conditions which impede desired improvement in the system/organization… There is no hierarchy, but open and ‘symmetrical communication’. The emancipatory interest is based on the notion of action researchers as participants in a community of equals and as improvement to professional practice at the local, perhaps classroom level, within the capacities of individuals and the situations in which they are working. Action research is part of a broader agenda of changing education, changing schooling and changing society.

A review of action research frameworks reveals several common features. An action research project seeks to create knowledge, propose and implement change, and improve practice and performance (Stringer, 1996). Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) suggest that the fundamental components of action research include the following: (1) developing a plan for improvement, (2) implementing the plan, (3) observing and documenting the effects of the plan, and (4) reflecting on the effects of the plan for further planning and informed action. New knowledge gained results in changes in practice (see also, Fullan, 2000a). Action research is often conducted to discover a plan for innovation or intervention and is collaborative. Based on Kemmis and McTaggart’s (1998) original formulation of action research and subsequent modifications, Mills (2003) developed the following framework for action research:

  • Describe the problem and area of focus.
  • Define the factors involved in your area of focus (e.g., the curriculum, school setting, student outcomes, and instructional strategies).
  • Develop research questions.
  • Describe the intervention or innovation to be implemented.
  • Develop a timeline for implementation.
  • Describe the membership of the action research group.
  • Develop a list of resources to implement the plan.
  • Describe the data to be collected.
  • Develop a data collection and analysis plan.
  • Select appropriate tools of inquiry.
  • Carry out the plan (implementation, data collection, data analysis).
  • Report the results.

This deductive approach implements a planned intervention, monitors its implementation, and evaluates the results. A more inductive approach, formulated by Burns (1999), is to carry out action research to explore what changes need to be made or what actions need to be taken in a specific instructional setting. Burns suggests the following interrelated activities:

  • Explore an issue in teaching or learning.
  • Identify areas of concern.
  • Observe how those areas play out in the setting of the study.
  • Discuss how the issue might be addressed.
  • Collect data to determine the action to be taken (e.g., student questionnaires, observation reports, journal entries).
  • Plan strategic actions based on the data to address the issue.

Kemmis and McTaggert’s approach focuses on implementing an action plan, whereas Burns’ focuses on planning for action.
Commonly used data collection tools in action research projects include existing archival sources in schools (e.g., attendance reports, standardized test scores, lesson plans, curriculum documents,), questionnaires, interviews, observation notes and protocols, videotapes, photographs, journals and diaries, and narratives (e.g., stories told by teachers, see Hartman, 1998).


Burns (2009) points out that ‘the modern seeds of AR in educational contexts can be found in the work of John Dewey (and… can be traced to Aristotle)’. Dewey had argued against the separation of theory from practice, and this had profoundly influenced educational enquiry in the first part of the 20th century to the present time. This has been the basis for future research by educators, academics and social scientists into their various fields with the aims of improving the human conditions.

Nevertheless, in recent years a great body of literature in language teacher education has focus on teacher beliefs and reflection. Movement such as the ‘teacher as researcher’ and ‘teacher as reflective practitioner’ have been trying to promote the benefits of empowering teachers to take control of their professional development and curriculum development through reflection on practice. The new trend encourages teachers to carry out systematic rigorous enquiry into problematic areas of teaching, learning and curriculum in their classrooms, devise plans of action, carry out these plans of action and collect data to evaluate the revised plan in a cyclic pattern(Denny,2005:59-60). It is however noteworthy to understand that the movements ‘teacher as researcher’ and ‘teacher as reflective practitioner’ developed in different forms by different proponents of AR in UK, the USA and Australia, though they have much in common and strongly influenced by teacher education(Zeichner,2001 in Denny, 2005).

After all the polemics, it is obvious and important that teachers need support in order to carry on AR, streamline the research process, understand and imbibe group research ethics, ability to learn fast and become familiar with the literature on the theme of the research.

Teachers on training like us, and practicing ELT/ESL with less experience or even completely unfamiliar with AR should be enlightened, given guidance on background reading in research methodology before any assignment or to initiate AR project. Where resources are available, there would be the need to organise a workshop at the beginning for a group with a varied and differing experiences to teach the principle of action research, methods of finding a focus which is realistic, selecting and designing the data gathering tools and planning the research timeline(Denny,2005).

Also in line with Denny’s (2005) suggestion, I feel that teacher researchers involved in group project should be also be involved in organising initial workshops and dissemination of the results of the workshop through publication. The group should include a researcher experienced in AR and with experience in applying for grants, presenting and publishing research reports.


Action research has made some significant positive impacts in language teaching field, especially ELT/ESL and on teachers involved in it, individually and collectively, however, the precise nature of these impacts on language teaching and learning may be difficult to ascertain in tangible concrete terms. This may not be unconnected to the argument that AR is not a research method can be sustained and replicated, because of lack of formal unified theory and training its conduct. Nonetheless, scholars such as Kemmis and McTaggart (1982:2-5, in Burns, 2005:68) claim that AR has enable teachers to develop skills in:

¨ thinking systematically about what happens in the classroom

¨ implementing action where improvements are thought to be possible

¨ monitoring and evaluating the effects of the with a view to continuing the improvement

¨ monitoring complex situations critically and practically

¨ implementing a flexible approach to school or classroom

¨ making improvements through action and reflection

¨ researching the real, complex and often confusing circumstances and constraints of the modern school

¨ recognizing and translating evolving ideas into action.

Many more claims concerning the benefits of AR are made, Burns (1999: 14 – 15) states that the Australian teachers collaborated with her had experienced:

¨ deeper engagements with their own classroom practices

¨ a better understanding of research and methods for carrying out research

¨ less sense of isolation from other teachers

¨ a personal challenge, satisfaction and professional growth

¨ heightened awareness of external factors impinging on their classrooms.


Action research as a form of research is not without problems; articulation, conception and application. It has attracted a lot of criticisms; one major criticism is that research is an activity best left to academic specialists who have the training and capacity. Thus AR has no academic prestige and finesse. Jarvis (1981) is one of the proponents of this line of thinking in the language teaching field and similar views were expressed in TESOL Newsletter (2001), (see Burns, 2009:66-67). However, scholars like Borg (2002) feel differently, and reject the traditional boundaries between teachers and researchers. In fact Borg is championing the cause for teacher-researcher, has written extensively on this topic; Borg (2006) Conditions for Teacher Researcher.

There is therefore need to address views such as Jarvis, if AR is to be considered as a research methodology. Many more criticisms against AR that deserve our attention are that it:

¨ has not developed sound research procedures, techniques and methodology

¨ is small-scale and therefore not generalizable(has low external validity)

¨ shows low control of the research environment and therefore cannot contribute to causal theories of teaching and learning

¨ exhibits strong personal involvement on the part of the participant and therefore is overly subjective and anecdotal

¨ is not reported in a form that conforms to a recognisable scientific genre (Burns,2009:67).

In addition to above criticisms AR has been criticised as messy, informal, and structurally unformed involving imprecise cycles of research and action.


Despite the arguments and counter arguments for and against AR as a methodology in language teaching fields, its range of activities has impacted on the participating teachers who have been engaged in it. It is now being accepted as a movement in the language teaching field, though it is not internationally widespread. This is because some essential conditions that promote AR, such as motivation, support, research knowledge, skills, and the potential for dissemination of findings are not readily available. This is in contrast to where AR has taken room, teachers are well supported, teaching in instructional contexts, such as in Australia and North America (Borg, unpublished, cited in Burns, 2009). Most ELT/ESL professional are still uninvolved in AR and despite the enthusiasm in favour of AR interest and involvement in it is on the decline.

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Most ELT and especially ESL teachers are not exposed to AR, and may not even have an idea of how it works. Some extensive workshops and conferences where teachers are involved in practical demonstration of teaching planning and presentation may result into AR. A case in point is my personal experience in Alfaisal International Academy, Riyadh. The Academy in collaboration with British Council organised a Training Workshop on the Teaching of Composition between the months of September and October, 2007. All participating teachers were given papers with spaces, and were asked to freely express the problems they encounter in the teaching of composition. The teachers were asked to present their views in groups and discuss the problems which include the choice of topic, sentence and paragraph development, logical arrangement of ideas, styles and soon. At the end of the month-long training most of the participating teachers were able to improve upon their composition class.

The composition training was highly contextualized and localized in its attempt to investigate a situation in a specific school. We were able to convert tacit knowledge of student progress in composition writing to explicit knowledge that could be communicated clearly to other constituents, such as board members and parents. The training confirmed our individual opinions, observations, and intuitions based on investigation of our inputs in the training. If our observations were taken into considerations, it would provide impetus for changes in practice and curriculum, based on information that was systematically collected and synthesized. This information would lead to the expansion of the language capacity of the Arab ESL students through a revised curriculum that involved storytelling, sentence-level production of the language, and the use of content-based discourse-level speaking tasks. The research was participatory and collaborative, involving all of the international community English as second language teachers in Alfaisal International Academy, Riyadh Saudi Arabia.

The problem is that such workshops are once-in-a-blue-moon events, wide apart and hardly sustainable. Moreover, we did not call it AR. However, it has all the features of action research.


One of the major challenges of action research is to create awareness about its nature, scope, benefits in language teaching fields. Besides its inclusion as a certificatory requirement course, it should be encouraged through conferences and worldwide professional body where contacts can be maintained. Dissemination of individual and cooperative research findings would ensure the growth expansion of AR.

Despite AR impacts in the language teaching learning field, more interesting challenges and tensions are still prevalent. I share Burns’ (2009) concerns that there are differing understandings, of AR’s purpose, scope, and practices in various contexts. We should really consider finding answers to questions concerning the future directions of AR in a number of broad areas, such as:

  1. How should we envisage the primary purposes and outcomes of AR? Is it mainly a vehicle for practitioners’ personal and professional development, or can it also have a role in the production of knowledge for the field?
  2. Is AR simply an accessible version of research for teachers, or does it also denote an emerging paradigm with its own epistemology, methodologies and investigative practices? If so, how should standards of quality be addressed?
  3. In what ways can AR open up opportunities for collective forms of knowledge about teaching and learning that are inclusive of academic and teaching communities? What kinds of relationships between teachers, teacher educators and researchers will need to emerge to facilitate collective knowledge production?
  4. (How) can AR activity in language teaching also address broader issues of curriculum development, social justice and educational political action, thus contributing to the greater sustainability of effective educational practices?


This research methodology, despite many contentions, criticism, arguments and counter arguments on the nature, scope and processes, is used in many fields of human endeavour such as social and health services, community development and education, to address a long history of difficulties in successfully transferring research knowledge into changes in practice. It is a means of combining the generation of knowledge with professional development of practitioners through their participation as co-researchers. It also serves as a barrier breaker between policymakers and practitioners, giving them richer insights into practice and an active role in policy development as well as its implementation respectively. This is clear in a research where teachers are involved in the identification of problem, plan on how to solve the problem in a participatory, collaborative, cooperative way. The various inputs of individual teacher researcher and all participating teacher researchers are the data that would inform the policy of change. Thus when teachers are part of the planning of policy and designing curriculum, its implementation and improvement would better and easier.

The essay has been able to critically explore action research, teacher research, meaning, arguments and processes as a research ‘methodology’. Some suggestions have been proffered to more rigorous method of research in teacher action research in language teaching field.

Altrichter, H., Feldman, A., Posch, P., & Somekh, B. (2008). Teachers investigate their work: An introduction to action research across the professions (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burns, A. (2005). Action research: An evolving paradigm? Language Teaching, 38(2), 57-74.

Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (Eds.). (1988). The action research planner (Third ed.). Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.

Wallace, M. J. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burns, A. (2009). Action research in second language teacher education. In A. Burns & J. C. Richards (Eds.), The Cambridge guide to second language teacher education (pp. 289-297). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching. A guide for practitioners. New York: Routledge.

Elliott, J. (1991). Action research for educational change. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2002). Action research: Principles and practice (2nd ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Rainey, I. (2000). Action research and the English as a foreign language practitioner: Time to take stock. Educational Action Research, 8(1), 65-91.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1998). ACTFL performance guidelines for K-12 learners. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fullan, M. (2000a). Change forces. The sequel. Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Fullan, M. (2000b). Leadership for the twenty-first century: Breaking the bonds of dependency. In The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (pp. 156-63). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hartman, D. K. (1998). Stories teachers tell. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Kemmis, S., & McTaggert, R. (1998). The action research planner. Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.

Mills, G. E. (2003). Action research: A guide for the teacher researcher. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Stringer, E. (1996). Action research: A handbook for practitioners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wallace, M. J. (2000). Action research for language teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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