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ERIC/CLL News Bulletin

March 1995, Volume 18, No. 2

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Anna Uhl Chamot
National Foreign Language Resource Center, Georgetown
University/Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC

Elementary school foreign language teachers often have questions about how children learn languages and about what the most effective approaches are to working with children in the language classroom. Frequently they reflect on their own teaching, analyze their students' responses, identify problems or puzzles that need solutions, experiment with different techniques, and evaluate the results of different approaches. If you are this kind of teacher, you may be interested in conducting research in your own classroom. Research involves identifying a question you would like to find the answer to, collecting and analyzing data that may answer the question, and interpreting the results. Action research is research conducted by teachers, often (though not always) in collaboration with others, and which frequently leads to changes in the instructional context (Nunan, 1992).

The purpose of this article is to describe some of the types of research that elementary school foreign language teachers can conduct with their students.


Research can be categorized in a number of ways, though the most usual way is to distinguish between quantitative research, which seeks to answer a question through experimentation and statistical analyses, and qualitative research, which seeks to draw conclusions from careful observation and description of the phenomena observed. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The results of quantitative research are thought to be more generalizable than qualitative research because more objective means of acquiring data have been used. On the other hand, qualitative research is thought to be superior to quantitative methods in capturing the complexity of language (and other) learning because of its focus on naturally occurring rather than experimentally elicited phenomena. It is probably a good idea to view these two types of research as a continuum, ranging from carefully controlled experiments to individual, introspective case studies (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). In addition, it is possible and probably advisable to employ both quantitative and qualitative methods in second language acquisition research. For example, a teacher might conduct observations of her class and interview or test students in order to identify areas of difficulty or gaps in their knowledge. The teacher could then design instructional activities to address the areas identified, and after a period of instruction again interview or test the children to see what impact the instruction had. This type of classroom research would involve both descriptive and quantitative methods. For descriptions of types of classroom research, see Johnson (1992, 1993) and Nunan (1992).


The planning stage of research begins with identifying a question to investigate. Keeping a journal about one's reflections on teaching and learning as a first step in finding a research question has been recommended by a number of researchers (Hatch & Lazaraton, 1991; Johnson & Chen, 1992; Nunan, 1992; Richards & Lockhart, 1994). A journal can record puzzling class episodes, comments by children that reveal their insights into language learning, observations by other teachers about what does and does not work, and topics encountered while reading that suggest further exploration. Keeping a journal not only records ideas and impressions that might otherwise be forgotten, but it is also helpful in exploring ideas and developing insights through the writing process itself (Richards & Lockhart, 1994). Journal entries should be made several times a week in order to capture at least part of the day-to-day interaction of classroom processes and teacher knowledge. By regularly reviewing the journal, teachers can discover a particular area or topic that recurs and that incites curiosity for investigation. Having identified a particular topic, the next step is to develop a question that will guide exploration of it.

Two criteria should be kept in mind when considering possible research questions: The question should be important, not trivial; and the question should be answerable (Nunan, 1992). For example, an important question in a foreign language immersion class would be, "What attitudes do my students have toward the target culture?" An unimportant question for a language classroom would be, "What weekend sports do my students participate in?" -- unless, of course, an option is a sport conducted in the target language! Both of these questions are answerable through surveys, structured interviews, and observation. Examples of questions that are difficult if not impossible to answer are, "What level of proficiency will each of my students reach after six years of immersion study?" or "What is the best teaching method for all students?" These questions introduce multiple variables that are difficult to analyze, much less generalize, as there would likely be more than one plausible answer to each question.

The following possible research questions are suggested as examples that could guide action research in an elementary school foreign language classroom:

Before undertaking classroom research, it is useful to know if others have already researched the topic and, if so, what methods they used and the results of their investigations. Therefore, as research topics and possible questions are explored, concurrent reading of related literature is recommended as a way to clarify ideas and sharpen the proposed research focus. Finding out about research that has already been undertaken in the area of interest can provide information about research design, data collection instruments, methods of analysis, pitfalls to avoid, findings, and recommendations for further research. While a teacher may not have the time or resources to conduct an exhaustive literature review, an understanding of representative recent research on the topic is an essential step in conducting action research.


Once a research topic or question has been selected and background reading has been done, researcher-teachers need to decide what information will help them answer the question and how they can obtain such information. If the research questions call for descriptive research investigating the characteristics of a group of students, classrooms, or teachers, information could be collected through observations, interviews, diaries, or journals. Descriptive research is often the first step in a larger study because it can provide good baseline data on the way things are in a particular setting prior to intervention designed to change things. For the classroom teacher, descriptive research is important for identifying student characteristics such as attitudes, motivation, approaches to learning, learning styles, difficulties encountered, and self-perceptions. Often, a deeper understanding of the learner's perspective suggests changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment that the teacher may want to explore.

Once a teacher decides to change some aspect of the instructional process, the stage is set for research involving intervention. In general, types of intervention research fall into categories of true experiments, quasi-experiments, and pre-experiments. In true experimental research, students are assigned randomly to experimental or control groups and pretested to assure that both groups have the same characteristics to start with. Then the experimental group receives some kind of special treatment, such as a new curriculum, instructional approach, or type of assessment. After a period of time, both experimental and control groups are tested again, and statistical analyses are made of differences found between the two groups so that reliable conclusions can be drawn about the effect of the intervention. The rigor required in an experimental study makes it difficult to conduct in most classroom settings. In quasi-experimental research, students are not randomly assigned to the two groups, generally because intact classes are used. Differences between experimental and control groups after intervention may suggest that the intervention had an impact, but a causal relationship cannot be definitely established. Action research that involves intervention generally falls into a category called pre-experimental research, because it deals with a single classroom rather than with an experimental and a control group. The results of an intervention in a single classroom can be valuable and instructive for the teacher and may suggest improvements to a particular program. The results, however, should not be seen as typical of all learners or all programs_in other words, generalization is not possible on the basis of the results in a single classroom. Of course, if the intervention is repeated across many different types of classrooms and the positive results continue to be found, the likelihood of the intervention being a causal factor is increased.

Whether research is to be descriptive or intervention-oriented -- or a combination -- information about the children to be studied needs to be gathered. At a minimum, the teacher-researcher needs to record age, gender, achievement levels in the native language, amount of prior second/foreign language learning, travel or residence in a target language country, family language background and language use at home, and level of current proficiency in the target language. To these pieces of objective information, the teacher may wish to add anecdotal information about each child's attitude toward the target language and culture, approach to learning, and individual characteristics such as extroversion or risk-taking (for a discussion of language learner individual characteristics, see O'Malley & Chamot, 1993). All of this information, of course, should remain confidential. In any reporting of research, teachers should be careful never to identify individual students by name or by other identifying characteristics.


Every method for collecting information about individuals participating in a research study has advantages and disadvantages. Two extreme examples are standardized tests and introspective techniques. A standardized test asks everyone the same questions under the same conditions, and the results are compared to a similar population's performance on the same test. The results are supposed to be objective but often are not for several reasons. For example, the two populations compared may in fact differ in important ways, or the standardized test may not adequately capture a representative sample of students' real performance level. Introspective techniques such as diaries, think-aloud protocols, or self-ratings can provide rich descriptions and insights into individual learners, but they are subjective and depend for accuracy on how well learners are able to report on their own thoughts and feelings. The fact is, the purported measurement of human mental and affective processes is at best an extraordinarily inexact science. Researchers need to keep this fact in mind constantly as they evaluate different ways to collect information about the people they are studying. It is generally recommended that different approaches to gathering information be employed in any study in order to obtain a number of views of the phenomenon being investigated. If it turns out that results of the different information approaches seem to be in agreement, then a stronger case can be made for the findings and recommendations of the study.

With these cautionary remarks in mind, I would like to suggest some particular techniques for gathering information in elementary school foreign language classrooms. These techniques can be used in both descriptive and intervention studies.

DIARIES. Students write about their experiences and thoughts related to language learning. Teachers may provide prompts such as: "Today I learned how to . . .; It is easy to learn . . .; What I find difficult is . . .; I feel . . . about learning (name of language); I think I am a . . . language learner." Students may be allowed to make diary entries in English, the target language, or a combination of the two. As children become more proficient in the target language, they will find it easier to express their opinions and feelings in that language (for an example of a child's foreign language diary in an immersion setting, see Chamot & Chamot, 1983).

THINK-ALOUD INTERVIEWS. Another introspective method is to have a child think aloud while working on a foreign language task. For example, the child might be given an unfamiliar story to read, and at the end of each page, the interviewer asks, "What are you thinking?" This can be followed up with comments such as, "How did you figure that out? What else were you thinking?" The interview should be taped for future transcription and analysis. Depending on the child's level of proficiency, the interview could be conducted in English or in the target language (the task, of course, would always be in the target language). Think-aloud interviews can open a window on a learner's thinking processes, revealing strategies, attitudes, and language proficiency. Current research conducted with foreign language immersion students by Georgetown University's research team at the National Foreign Language Resource Center is using think-aloud interviews to collect information on children's language learning strategies. We are finding that some children can easily describe their thought processes while working on language and mathematics tasks in the foreign language, while other children's verbalizations are not so successful in revealing mental processing.

STIMULATED RECALL. This technique uses videotapes to record a teaching or learning sequence, then has the participant(s) view the videotape and describe their own thoughts at the time of the recorded event. For example, a videotape of a role play cold be played back and stopped at intervals for the teacher to ask the children what they were thinking of at that moment or why they said something a certain way. The same stimulated recall technique can be used to record the teacher teaching a lesson. Later, the videotape is played back, stopped at critical teaching moments, and the teacher indicates reasons why a decision was made or an activity was modified.

STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS. In this type of interview, the teacher-researcher prepares a list of questions in advance, together with directions and any explanations needed. Then each child or group of children in an interview is asked the exact same questions or completes the same language task. In this way, the teacher can have more confidence that all children had a reasonably equal opportunity to understand and respond to the same questions. Interviews can also be used to elicit children's language. For example, a child is shown a picture (or sequence of pictures) and asked to describe it or tell a story about it. Responses should be taped-recorded or videotaped for later analysis.

A useful outcome of interviews of this kind is the gathering of children's descriptions of some aspect of language learning in their own words. These very same words can later be used in other interview or questionnaire instruments, and may be more easily understood by other children of the same age than teacher-written descriptions.

QUESTIONNAIRES. A written questionnaire can replace an interview for older children, and can be in either English or the target language, depending on children's second language reading ability. The two major drawbacks of questionnaires are that respondents may not understand the intent of a question or they may not answer truthfully. To counteract the first of these difficulties, the questionnaire items need to be simple and unambiguous, and the questionnaire should be tried out with a group of similar students before being administered to the students to be studied. A discussion after students have completed the pilot questionnaire should focus on how well the intent of each item was understood and on difficulties or confusion experienced by the students. Revisions should address these concerns, and items should be rewritten to reflect the actual language used by students. When administering the revised questionnaire to the students in the study, the teacher should explain the purpose of the questionnaire and emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers. The results of the questionnaire (without identifying student names) can serve as a basis for classroom discussion, if possible, in the target language. Questionnaires with open-ended questions (not only multiple choice) can reveal a wide range of student attitudes and approaches to language learning (see Chamot, 1993).

CLASSROOM OBSERVATION. Teachers constantly observe their classrooms, but a focused and systematic observation can provide deeper insights into the learning context and social interaction in a class. Focused and systematic observation is planned, carried out according to preestablished criteria, and recorded as completely as possible. For example, a teacher might decide to systematically videotape a ten-minute segment of a class over a period of a week in order to analyze the amounts of target language and English used by the teacher and students. If it is determined that the percentage of target language use needs to be increased, the teacher might devise an intervention in the form of specific language activities requiring the target language. After a number of weeks of intervention, the teacher might then again videotape the equivalent ten-minute class segments for another week and compare the language use with the pre-intervention videotape.


Student involvement in the research process can add depth and learning insights to action research. Even young children can understand the purpose of a research project, the importance of careful observation and accurate reporting, and how the information discovered can be used to improve the teaching-learning context. In developing a research question, the teacher can discuss possible questions with students and ask them to contribute ideas about research questions of interest to them. The teacher can also summarize for students some of the research that has already been done on the topic. Naturally, this summary needs to be presented simply and in a way that will engage students' interest. After briefly describing the study and its findings, the teacher might ask if students think that the findings apply to their own classroom, and what they might expect to be the same and different if they were to conduct a similar study. This kind of discussion sets the stage for students to become actively engaged in the research process. While collecting data, the teacher should always stress the importance of objectivity and the fact that in research there are no right or wrong answers, just more and less effective ways of collecting and interpreting data.


This article has presented an overview of types of classroom-based research and suggestions for action research that could be conducted by elementary school foreign language teachers. Many additional research ideas are possible, and are limited only by the ingenuity of teachers. In closing, I would like to urge teacher-researchers to share their research with a broad audience so that those of us who are not fortunate in having our own classrooms at present can learn and benefit from you. Let your colleagues at school and at your local university know about your research efforts. Write articles about your investigations and seek publication in local newsletters, state publications, and national and international professional journals. Share your work through workshops and presentations at local, state, and national conferences. Your voice and your experiences need to be heard. People who believe in foreign language education -- teachers, administrators, parents, legislators, and researchers -- are waiting to hear from you.

For more information, contact:

Anna Uhl Chamot
Language Research Projects
Georgetown University
1916 Wilson Blvd., Suite 207
Arlington, VA 22201


Chamot, A. U. (1993). Student responses to learning strategy instruction in the foreign language classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 26, 308-321.

Chamot, G. A., & Chamot, A. U. (1983). Journal of a ten-year-old second language learner. In R. V. Padilla (Ed.), Theory, technology, and public policy in bilingual education (pp. 171-187). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Hatch, E., & Lazaraton, A. (1991). The research manual: Design and statistics for applied linguistics. New York: Newbury House. Johnson, D. M. (1992). Approaches to research in second language learning. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Johnson, D. M. (1993). Classroom-oriented research in second-language learning. In A. O. Hadley (Ed.), Research in language learning: Principles, processes, and prospects (pp. 1-23). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Johnson, D. M., & Chen, L. (1992). Researchers, teachers and inquiry. In D. M. Johnson, Approaches to research in second language learning (pp. 212-227). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Long, M. H. (1991). An introduction to second language acquisition research. London: Longman.

Nunan, D. (1992). Research methods in language learning. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

O'Malley, J. M., & Chamot, A. U. (1993). Learner characteristics in second-language acquisition. In A. O. Hadley (Ed.). Research in language learning: Principles, processes, and prospects, (pp. 96-123). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Richards, J. C., & Lockhart, C. (1994). Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

This article was reprinted from FLES NEWS (Volume 8, Number 1, Fall 1994), the newsletter of the National Network for Early Language Learning (NNELL). As an organization for educators involved in teaching foreign languages to young students, NNELL's mission is to promote opportunities for all children to develop a high level of competence in at least one language and culture in addition to their own and to coordinate the efforts of all those involved in early language education. NNELL encourages early start and long sequence foreign language programs.

To join NNELL and receive the three 1994-95 issues of FLES NEWS, send a check of money order for $12 ($15 overseas rate) to the address below.

In the fall of 1995, the newsletter will become "Learning Languages: the Journal of the National Network for Early Language Learning." For a 1995-96 membership and subscription to the new journal, send a check or money order for $15 ($20 overseas rate) to:

Nancy Rhodes, Executive Secretary
4646 40th Street NW
Washington, DC 20016-1859



The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Joy Kreeft Peyton as Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics. Dr. Peyton holds a Ph.D. in sociolinguistics from Georgetown University, an M.A. in Spanish, and a B.A. in English. A former teacher of Spanish and ESL, Dr. Peyton has been a member of the CAL staff since 1980, directing a variety of research and teacher development projects. She is particularly well known for her research on the use of dialogue journals and computer network writing with students learning English as a second language. Since 1993, Dr. Peyton has served as Director of the National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE), and adjunct ERIC clearinghouse. She will continue to fill that role in addition to her new role at ERIC/CLL.

The ERIC/CLL News Bulletin is published in March and September by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics: Joy Peyton, Director; Jeanne Rennie, Associate Director; Vickie W. Lewelling, Editor. It is mailed to U.S. members of AATG, AATSP, ACTFL, LSA, and TESOL. Readers may reprint any part of the Bulletin without permission, citing ERIC/CLL as the source. Newsletter editors please send a tearsheet of reprinted portions to the Bulletin editor. In each issue of the Bulletin, ERIC/CLL will print news from our partners: Advocates for Language Learning; American Association of Teachers of German: American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages; Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages: Georgetown University School of Languages and Linguistics; Linguistics Society of America; National Association for Bilingual Education; National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning; National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education; National Network for Early Language Learning; Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages; and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RR93002010. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED.
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