My Teaching context
My English teaching context has recently changed. At the beginning of 2016 I began working at an English Language School in Melbourne’s South East. The school runs an intensive English language program where students are enrolled for 6-12 months. Many students in the cohort are refugees or in Australia on humanitarian visas. Most students have been disadvantaged in some way, most commonly racial, ethnic or economic discrimination. Many students deal with past and present trauma.
Classes have a combination of first languages and the school does have some Multicultural Teaching Aides. Classes are streamed based on language ability and capped at 15 students. Compared to students in mainstream settings, students are extremely willing to learn and positive about their language learning.
For the purposes of completing EML514 I have completed a mini literature review of three types of research methodology that can be applied to TESOL and my language teaching and learning context in particular; Ethnographic research, Discourse Analysis research and Corpus based research approaches.
Ethnographic research stems from anthropological approaches to examining human behaviour (Murthy, 2008). The main focus is studying language learning in the context in which learning occurs, identifying meanings, measuring understanding and the participants’ identities. Thus,
“Ethnographic research involves the direct observation of human behaviour within particular settings and seeks to understand a social reality from the perspective of those involved.” Starfield, S., 2015, p. 51.
While there are no explicit rules, ethnographic research approaches lend themselves to qualitative research methods as it attempts to gain a ‘holistic’ understanding of the participants in the study (Mackey & Gass, 2005). This holistic approach is essential when studying people from unfamiliar, and sometimes marginalized, cultures. This research methodology encourages the researcher and their audience to interrogate ingrained systems that may oppress some groups; such as the education system (Canagarajah, 1993). For these reasons, ethnographic research is extremely relevant to my own language teaching setting.
One of the most notable aspects of ethnographic research is that it occurs in context. Dressen-Hammouda plots the development of ethnographic research concurrently with the ‘social turn’ in language and literacy studies, where understanding the language use context becomes paramount in the study of language development (2013). Research is carried out from the point of view of the participants, categorizing findings in ways that relate to the group itself. Ethnographic research focuses on the way the individual represents a group, stressing the importance of situating smaller studies within a wider sociocultural context. Thus, “analysis [is] being derived from the data itself rather than being imposed from the outside” (Mackey & Gass, 2005, p.168), meaning research findings are dynamic. This approach to research means that the method and data collection processes are unique, and come with both advantages and limitations for TESOL.
The method used for Ethnographic research depends on the context and the problem being investigated, relying more on the research process rather than the instruments used (Mackey & Gass, 2005). This research is characterized by a sustained time commitment by the researcher, whereby the researcher needs to become immersed in the culture or cultural group being studied. The researcher becomes closer to the participants than conventional researchers. Therefore, the researcher must, as part of the process, reflect on the effect they may have had on the results of the study. Additionally, some quantitative research approaches can be incorporated, where appropriate (Dressen-Hammouda, 2013; Canagarajah, 1993). Research outcomes and objectives often change as the research is being conducted in light of new information or unexpected revelations (Starfield, 2015), meaning that the method is designed to be flexible. Research is usually not hypothesis driven and is non-experimental.
The data collected by ethnographic research, like the method, is flexible. Data collected is primarily qualitative; including observations, interviews, video recordings, existing documents and diaries (Mackey & Gass, 2005; Starfield, 2015). Emic interpretations of the data are a direct result of nature of ethnographic research (Mackey & Gass, 2005). Considering the diverse types of data collected, data must be triangulated to ensure that findings are valid (Dressen-Hammouda, 2013).
This type of research has some distinct advantages, most of which are born from its emphasis on observing the participants from their point of view. It is a particularly relevant research method when researchers are investigating a group that they are unfamiliar with, taking into account flaws, restrictions and opportunities afforded to the group (Serrant-Green, 2007). Ethnographic research looks at an issue in its entirety. For example, if students are not responding to formal instruction in a language classroom, the researcher could examine the context, teacher and student attitudes, influences from home or the wider community as well as cultural nuances (Mackey & Gass, 2005). This could lead the researcher to a more authentic understanding of the problem being investigated, and consequently position them to make advantageous recommendations for the person or group being investigated. Thus, the depth of understanding that this type of research promotes can affect real social change.
However, ethnographic research methodology also comes with limitations. Firstly, this type of research is time consuming. The researcher needs to make a substantial commitment to long-term data collection, detailed and continuous record keeping, and repeated and careful analysis of data obtained from multiple sources. Secondly, researchers need to be aware of the effect they may have on the participants’ behaviour. Thirdly, becoming so immersed in a group can cause conflict between the roles of researcher and participant (Mackey & Gass, 2005). Finally, much of the data collected is observational, the researcher must interpret the actions and interactions of participants (Starfield, 2015); meaning personal biases of the researcher can skew results.
Ethnographic research lends itself to investigating cultures that are unfamiliar to the researcher, and thus apt for TESOL purposes. Firstly, authentic research leads to authentic results that can have a lasting impact on the participants (Dressen-Hammouda, 2013). Authentic understanding of a group of people can lead to pedagogical changes that enhanced language output for the group in question. For example, Canagarajah immersed herself in the language-learning context she taught in in Sri Lanka. Upon discovering that while students did see the necessity for learning English, they simultaneously resented the U.S. centered textbooks that they were learning from. Students were more willing to learn English purely for the purposes of which they needed it, while maintaining their own reliance on their native language for everyday purposes (1993). Thus, the pedagogy was altered to teach the language necessary for the work place, and their language learning became meaningful rather than oppressive.
Discourse Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis Research
Discourse Analysis is the term used for a range of research methods that study the structure and function of texts and interactions in relation to the contexts in which they occur, moving beyond clauses and utterances to foster a deeper understanding of how language is used (Jones, 2015). Discourse can be defined as symbolic human interaction in its many forms, including spoken and written text, used to achieve a purpose. This discourse is then analysed to establish patterns, identify nuanced language and culturally specific ways of communicating. Authentic Discourse Analysis must be taken from naturally produced texts from their naturally occurring context, in order to better understand the values and social practice of a community group (Bloor & Bloor, 2013; Unknown). Discourse Analysis research is an in-depth analysis and understanding of a person’s language output, and is therefore qualitative. Depending on the researcher’s focus question, it can either be experimental or non-experimental research.
Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is a branch of Discourse Analysis that seeks an even deeper understanding of the way that language is used to position individuals within society. CDA works within a ‘critical’ paradigm whereby issues such as ideology, inequality and power relations are examined in an effort to “incorporate social-theoretical insights into discourse analysis and advocates social commitment and interventionism in research” (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000, p.447). The purpose of CDA is therefore to unpack ‘opaque’ and ‘transparent’ relationships of dominance, discrimination, power and control produced in language (Blommaert & Bulcaen). Considering my own educational setting, investigating CDA research is a necessary measure when applying Discourse Analysis research.
When a researcher is embarking on Discourse Analysis, the methodology is flexible according to the research question, like Ethnographic research. Spoken texts must be transcribed before they can be analysed, and careful consideration must be made into which texts are examined. Discourse is often analysed using Systemic-Functional Linguistics (SFL), the processes of labeling sentences constituents according to class in order to investigate the function of parts of language and the meanings encoded within the language (Butt, Fahey, Feez, Spinks & Yallop, 2000). Researchers are commonly interested in turn taking during conversation, topic focus and genre analysis to uncover power relations embedded within communication (Jones, 2015). Bloor & Bloor argue that Discourse Analysis is multidisciplinary; meaning it draws on anthropology, sociology, ethnography and ethnomethodology (2013). The flexible combination of methods employed depends on the research question and the nature of the social problem being investigated.
Discourse analysis has some particular advantages for TESOL research. Firstly, Discourse Analysis is a productive way of doing social research (Fairclough, 2003). Secondly, it can lead to a better understanding of the values and social norms of a particular community (Unknown). Thirdly, when extending to CDA research, participants can include disadvantaged individuals and has the power to “empower the powerless, giving voices to the voiceless, exposing power abuse, and mobilizing people to remedy social wrongs”, advocating interventionism in response to research conducted (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000). Granted, the researcher must choose appropriate participants and texts in order to achieve this end.
The limitations of Discourse Analysis are similar to the limitations of Ethnographic research. A lot of the information collected must be interpreted for deeper meaning by the researcher, leaving results open to individual biases. Additionally, due to qualitative nature of research and in-depth analysis, there is a lot of material to analyse. Thus, researchers must be careful to avoid contradictions in their analysis (Jones, 2015). Researchers must also be critical of the role they play within the research process and ensure they remain objective; otherwise research findings could be inaccurate (Bloor & Bloor, 2013). Like Ethnographic research, Discourse Analysts become entrenched in the research process and face similar limitations and ethical responsibilities during the research process.
Discourse Analysis, due to its close examination of communication and ‘opaque’ uncovering of power relations, makes it well suited to TESOL research. Some theorists have implicated educational institutions in reproducing hegemonic power relations and effecting student identity. Discourse Analysis has been highlighted as one type of research that could help inspire change and become the vehicle for pedagogical development (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000). For example, Discourse Analysis of a child’s communication with peers could reveal aggressive language use, which can have negative impacts on a child’s academic and social development. Such language uses may derive from communications taking place in the home or community. Getting to the core of this problem could help alleviate potential future issues for the student (Bloor & Bloor, 2013). Thus, Discourse Analysis approaches to research foster a deep understanding of the individual and the perspective from which they communicate.
Corpus Research Approaches
Finally, Corpus research methods are markedly different to Ethnographic and Discourse Analysis approaches to TESOL research. This research compiles a ‘Corpora’ of words collected from a large variety of texts and observes “the repeated lexical and grammatical choices of a certain community of language users” (Tognini-Bonelli, 2004, p.11). Corpus approaches are large scale, quantitative and digitalized; relying on computerized databases of spoken and written texts focusing on frequency, variation and co-text. Different analysts look at different sized corporas, from a few thousand words to five hundred million words. To begin with, Corporas were developed to make dictionaries, however recently research applications have moved towards TESOL (Granger, 2012; Biber & Conrad, 2001).
The methodology used to conduct Corpus based research relies heavily on the Internet and digitized analytical tools. Corpus data is best obtained through collecting samples from natural language use. Researchers can then choose between a Corpus-based approach; testing a hypothesis against Corpus data, which is often experimental research. Alternatively a Corpus-driven approach can be taken; where observations are generalized in order to build up a theoretical rule, and is non-experimental. Corpus-driven approaches are not hypothesis driven and therefore more flexible. Researchers decide if they need to code information based on their central question (Granger, 2012).
Data collection for Corpus methods is quantitative. Analysts rely heavily on large, and where necessary representative, electronic databases of spoken and written texts. Data collection can be time consuming to undertake due to the magnitude of data that needs collecting, especially when specific language groups are being examined. (Biber & Conrad, 2001; Granger, 2012). The researcher is able to remain much more detached using this research method, and data collected is analysed using a more objective framework.
The advantages of using centralized Corpora of language allows for analysts to identify strong patterns of use within registers and identify differences (Biber & Conrad, 2001). Data collection can be made quicker through the use of technology and can easily gauge feelings and sentiments towards language learning (Griffee, 2012). Through the use of analysis tools, the researcher is able to reduce their interpretation time and focus on coming to sound conclusions.
However, there are numerous disadvantages to this type of research. Firstly, variables such as age, gender and race are not always accounted for. Secondly, when participants have a different native language to the language they are engaging with in the study, participants may not be able to properly express themselves (Granger, 2012). Consistent with most criticism of quantitative research, Corpus approaches can be a ‘mile wide and an inch deep’, and have limited means to establish a cause-and-effect relationships (Griffee, 2012), and deeper understandings of the participants point-of-view.
Despite some limitations, Corpa research approaches have enormous capabilities for TESOL. Many studies are now conducted purely for the development of TESOL pedagogy. For example, Corporas allow for detailed study of specialized vocabulary, which can be used for developing word lists for language classrooms (Granger, 2012; Paltridge & Starfield, 2013). Biber and Conrad also noted that the most frequently used verbs, such as ‘say’, ‘know’ and ‘come’ were not the same verbs most commonly seen in English Language textbooks that commonly feature ‘study’, ‘run’ and ‘play’ amongst others (2001). Thus, researchers can transfer their findings to real pedagogical applications to improve language understanding and be implemented on a large scale.
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Tognini-Bonelli, E. (2004). Working with Corpora: Issues and Insights. In Coffin, E., Hewings, A., & O’Halloran, K. (eds.). Applying English Grammar: Functional and corpus approaches, pp. 11-23. Great Britain: Arnold, The Open University.
Unknown. Discourse Analysis in Second Language Writing. Accessed from EML509 Module Notes, page 3 http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472089196-ch1.pdf